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Operations on the Ancre, January – March 1917
Part of World War I
Map of the Battle of the Somme, 1916.svg
The Western Front, 1917
Date11 January – 13 March 1917
Coordinates: 50°4′N 2°42′E / 50.067°N 2.7°E / 50.067; 2.7
Result British victory
Artois, Ancre valley
 United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland & British Empire
France France & French Empire
 German Empire
Commanders and leaders
France Robert Nivelle
United Kingdom Douglas Haig
United Kingdom Hubert Gough
United Kingdom Henry Rawlinson
German Empire Erich Ludendorff
German Empire Kronprinz Rupprecht
German Empire Max von Gallwitz
Fourth Army, Fifth Army First Army
Casualties and losses
2,151 (incomplete) 5,284 prisoners
British pressure forced German withdrawals in the Ancre valley and then retreats to intermediate defensive positions in the Bapaume salient, two weeks before the scheduled retirement to the Hindenburg Line (Siegfriedstellung) in Operation Alberich.

After the Battle of the Ancre (13–18 November 1916), British attacks on the Somme front were stopped by the weather. During the rest of 1916 and early January 1917, military operations by both sides were mostly restricted to survival in the rain, snow, fog, mud fields, waterlogged trenches and shell-holes. As preparations for the offensive at Arras continued, the British attempted to keep German attention on the Somme front. The Fifth Army was instructed by Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig to prepare systematic attacks to capture portions of the German defences. Short advances could progressively uncover the remaining German positions in the Ancre valley, threaten the German hold on the village of Serre to the north and expose German positions beyond to ground observation. Artillery-fire could be directed with greater accuracy by ground observers and make overlooked German defences untenable.

A more ambitious plan for the spring, was an attack into the salient that had formed north of Bapaume, during the Battle of the Somme in 1916. The attack was to be directed northwards from the Ancre valley and southwards from the original front line near Arras to meet at St. Léger, as soon as the ground recovered from the winter and was intended to combine with the effect of the offensive planned at Arras. British operations on the Ancre from 10 January – 22 February 1917, forced the Germans back 5 miles (8.0 km) on a 4 miles (6.4 km) front, ahead of the schedule of the Alberich Bewegung ("Alberich Manoeuvre"/"Operation Alberich") and eventually took 5,284 prisoners. On 22/23 February the Germans fell back another 3 miles (4.8 km) on a 15-mile (24 km) front.[Note 1] The Germans then withdrew from much of the R. I Stellung to the R. II Stellung on 11 March, forestalling a British attack, which was not noticed by the British until dark on 12 March; the main German withdrawal from the Noyon salient to the Hindenburg Line (Operation Alberich) commenced on schedule on 16 March.

Background[edit | edit source]

German defences on the Ancre[edit | edit source]

By the end of 1916, the German defences on the south bank of the Ancre valley, had been pushed back from the original front line of 1 July 1916 and were based on the sites of fortified villages, connected by networks of trenches, most on reverse slopes sheltered from observation from the south and obscured from the north by the convex nature of the slopes. On the north bank the Germans had retained most of the Beaumont Hamel spur, beyond which to the north, were the original front line defences, running west of Serre northwards to Gommecourt and Monchy-au-Bois. The Germans had built R. I Stellung (Switch Trench I Position), a double line of trenches and barbed-wire several miles further back, as a new second line of defence along the ridge north of the Ancre valley, from Essarts to Bucquoy, west of Achiet le Petit, Loupart Wood, south of Grévillers, west of Bapaume, le Transloy to Sailly Saillisel. On the reverse slope of that ridge, R. II Stellung ran from Ablainzevelle to west of Logeast Wood, west of Achiet le Grand, western outskirts of Bapaume, Rocquigny, le Mesnil en Arrousaise to Vaux Wood. R. III Stellung branched from R. II Stellung at Achiet le Grand and ran clockwise around Bapaume, then south to Beugny, Ytres, Nurlu and Templeux la Fosse.[4][Note 2] The First Army held the Somme front, from the Somme river north to Gommecourt and had a similar number of troops to the British opposite, with ten divisions in reserve.[Note 3] On the night of 1/2 January, a German attack captured Hope Post near the Beaumont Hamel–Serre road, before being lost with another post on the night of 5/6 January.[6]

British positions on the Ancre[edit | edit source]

The Fifth Army held about 10 miles (16 km) of the Somme front in January 1917, from Le Sars westwards to the Grandcourt–Thiepval road, across the Ancre east of Beaucourt, along the lower slopes of the Beaumont Hamel spur, to the original front line south of the Serre road, north to Gommecourt Park. The right flank was held by IV Corps up to the north side of the Ancre river, with the XIII Corps on the north bank up to the boundary with the Third Army. II Corps and V Corps were in reserve resting, training and preparing to relieve the corps in line around 7–21 February, except for the divisional artilleries, which were to be joined by those of the relieving divisions.[7][Note 4]

An advance to close up to the "Le Transloy–Loupart Line", which ran from Essarts to Bucquoy, west of Achiet le Petit, Loupart Wood, south of Grévillers, west of Bapaume, le Transloy to Sailly Saillisel, had been the first objective of British operations in the Ancre valley, after the capture of Beaumont Hamel in late 1916 and began with an attack on 18 November, before the deterioration of the ground made operations impossible. Ground had been gained on a 5,000-yard (4,600 m) front south of the Ancre and positions improved on Redan Ridge on the north bank. Over the winter, the Fifth Army submitted plans to General Headquarters (GHQ), which were eventually settled in mid-February, after Joffre was replaced by General Robert Nivelle and the changes of strategy caused by the French decision to fight a decisive battle on the Aisne. The obvious difficulties of the Germans on the Ancre front, made it important to prevent the Germans from withdrawing to the new defences being built behind the Noyon salient (eventually known as the Hindenburg Line/Siegfriedstellung) in their own time. A retirement could disrupt the British offensive at Arras and became urgent, as a German withdrawal became likely in February and March, according to the results of air reconnaissance, agent reports and gleanings from prisoners.[8]

Reaching a good position for an attack on the "Bihucourt Line" (R. II Stellung) which ran from Ablainzevelle to west of Logeast Wood, west of Achiet le Grand, western outskirts of Bapaume, Rocquigny, le Mesnil en Arrousaise to Vaux Wood, the Fifth Army objective to be attacked three days before the Arras offensive and then conduct an advance to St Léger, to meet the Third Army and trap the Germans in their positions south-west of Arras. The first stage was to be an attack on 17 February, in which II Corps was to capture Hill 130. Gird Trench and the Butte de Warlencourt was to be captured by I Anzac Corps on 1 March, Serre was to be taken by V Corps on 7 March which would then extend its right flank to the Ancre, to relieve the 63rd Division of II Corps and capture Miraumont by 10 March. These operations would lead to the attack on the "Bihucourt Line" by II Corps and I Anzac Corps. These arrangements were maintained until 24 February, when German local withdrawals in the Ancre valley, required the Fifth Army divisions to make a general advance to regain contact.[9]

Prelude[edit | edit source]

Winter on the Somme[edit | edit source]

Winter on the Somme.

The condition of the ground on the Somme front became much worse in November 1916, when constant rain fell and the ground which had been churned by shell-fire since June, turned to deep mud. Some witnesses considered that the state of the ground was worse than at Ypres a year later. The ground in the Ancre valley was in the worst condition, a wilderness of mud, flooded trenches, shell-hole posts, corpses and broken equipment, overlooked and vulnerable to sniping from German positions. Little more could be done, beyond holding the line and frequently relieving troops, who found the physical and mental strain almost unbearable. Supplies had to be moved up by soldiers at night, to avoid sniping by German infantry and artillery-fire. Horses in transport units were used as pack animals, many of whom died when the oat ration was reduced to 6 pounds (2.7 kg) per day. The weather slightly improved in January and on 14 January, the temperature fell enough to freeze the ground.[10]

On the south side of the Ancre valley near Courcelette, the 51st Division took over from the 4th Canadian Division on 27 November. The division had only just been relieved from the line on the north bank, after the Battle of the Ancre (13–18 November 1916) with very little time for rest. Constant rain wet the ground so badly, that horses drowned and men became stuck up to their waists; in December ropes were issued to drag soldiers out of the mud. New trenches collapsed as they were dug and the front and support lines were held by shell-hole posts, which became islands of squalor, as duckboards and ration boxes used as platforms sank under the mud; cooking became impossible and movement in daylight suicidal. There was an epidemic of trench foot and frostbite, old wounds opened and troops became ill with dysentery. Morale plummeted and moving about after dark, led to working parties, runners, reliefs and ration parties getting lost and wandering around until exhausted. No man's land was not wired on this part of the front and British and German troops blundered into each other's positions, Germans being taken prisoner on six occasions. Some dug-outs in Regina Trench were usable but conditions in the artillery lines were as bad as the front line, with ammunition being delivered by pack horse under German artillery fire. "Elephant" shelters (the materials for which took ten men to carry forward and 24 hours to build) were placed in the front-line, sunk below trench and shell-hole parapets. Larger shelters were dug into the sides of roads further back and only a minimal number of troops kept in the front zone.[11]

After three weeks work, positions in the front line had been improved and a frost made the ground harder, until a thaw made the ground even worse than before. The 51st Division stores, obtained enough gum boots for a brigade of infantry but many were lost in the mud as men struggled to get free. The division wore highland kilts, which left the top of the leg bare underneath and the edges of the boots chafed the skin and caused septic sores, until 6,000 pairs of trousers were issued. Wearing the boots and standing for long periods made men's feet swell, to the point that walking became almost impossible. Buses were brought up to Pozières to collect soldiers, as they straggled back from the front-line during a relief. Food containers proved too heavy to carry 2,000 yards (1,800 m) into the front line and had to be replaced by "Tommy Cookers", cans of solidified alcohol with which soldiers could heat tins of food. Quartermasters improvised large numbers of extra cookers, so that the troops in the line could eat hot food when they pleased but the improvements made little difference to sickness wastage. The division began to relieve battalions after 48 hours, with 24 hours rest before and after each period in the line. On 11 December, the front of the division was reduced to two battalions, with the front of each battalion area being held by a company and two Lewis-gun crews. The strength of companies had declined to 50–60 men, so few and thinly spread, that a stray German soldier taken prisoner near a brigade headquarters, had seen no sign of British troops until he was captured. In December and January, casualties due to enemy action were 439, far fewer than those due to the weather and illness; the division was relieved by the 2nd Division on 12 January.[12]

File:2nd Division front, January 1917.jpg

2nd Division, Somme front, January 1917

The 2nd Division, also transferred from the north side of the Ancre valley, took over from the 51st Division on 13 January, on a front of 2,500 yards (2,300 m), 1,200 yards (1,100 m) south of the village of Pys. The front line consisted of 18 infantry posts and support positions held by ten platoons, with no positions behind until Courcelette, where three platoons were based, with two companies in the vicinity. Ironside Avenue, a communication trench ran forward 800 yards (730 m) towards the front line but was so full of mud as to be impassable. Brushwood tracks which were unusable in daylight, continued the route towards the front line. Two battalions took over the front posts, with two more back towards Ovillers and La Boisselle, with the 15th Division on the right and the 18th Division on the left. The 2nd Division continued the consolidation begun earlier by the 51st Division, large working parties laboured non-stop to dig out, clean and pump trenches, fit duckboards and provide overhead cover for the infantry posts in the front line; tramways were built by engineers behind the line. Both sides were quiet during the rest of January, until the Germans attempted a raid, which was stopped by machine-gun fire before the raiders had passed through the German barbed wire. On the north side of the valley other British troops captured the rest of the Beaumont Hamel spur. Conditions had been improved by the end of the month, although snowstorms covered such landmarks as existed and relieving parties frequently got lost. There was little artillery fire in the divisional areas but much German aircraft activity; British reconnaissance aircraft managed to photograph the front line on 29 January, giving the divisional commander the first accurate information about the position of the front line. The freeze lasted for about five weeks until mid-February, which made movement of carrying-parties much easier, as preparations for the next offensive were being made.[13]

On the north bank of the Ancre the 7th Division returned to the line after a month of rest and reorganisation in Flanders. It had marched 82 miles (132 km) south in rain and fog, before returning to the line on 23 November, to relieve the 32nd Division and the right of the 37th Division along New Munich Trench. The trench ran north-west to south-east below the crest of Beaumont Hamel spur and Beaucourt Trench ran east from the south end of New Munich Trench. The British line was parallel to the German Munich Trench and Muck Trench. Conditions were worse if possible, than those on the south side of the Ancre valley, causing much sickness, despite precautions like rubbing whale-oil into the feet to prevent trench foot and bringing dry socks up with the rations. One battalion had 38 men sick after a short period in the line. The temperature dropped several times in December, which began to harden the ground but this brought torrential rains, which was an even worse ordeal. British casualties from snipers were frequent and on one trench relief, the mud was so bad that a special rescue-party had to be sent to dig out troops caught in the mud. Despite swift medical attention, a large number of men had to be taken to hospital and one soldier died of exposure.[14]

The area was covered with trenches, many of which were derelict, damaged, half-built or obliterated by artillery-fire. Identifying the course of the front line or relating it to the map was impossible, as was the reconstruction of the front line, because trenches collapsed as soon as they were dug. Despite the conditions, raids were mounted by both sides and a party of about 100 Germans was repulsed from New Munich Trench on 25 November. Despite the conditions, New Munich Trench was extended by the British to the north and another 250 yards (230 m) was dug to the south, in preparation for an attack on Munich Trench, as soon as conditions allowed. The British line was held by posts about 30 yards (27 m) apart during the day and on 29 November a German raid on an outpost failed. At the end of December, a sudden increase in the number of German prisoners being taken was noticed, partly because a new German division had arrived, partly due to men getting lost in the fog and stumbling into British positions and partly because of an unusual willingness to surrender. Twenty Germans were captured on 1 January, 29 prisoners taken on 2 January and another 50 prisoners were taken during the week, many of whom willingly gave themselves up.[15]

Raiding continued and on 1 January, two officers on the way to Hope Post with the rum ration, met a German attack coming down Serre Trench and had to struggle back to Despair Post. A hurried counter-attack failed against German machine-gun fire and another attempt was postponed until the evening of 5 January, when at 5:15 p.m. 500 x 9.2-inch, 200 x 8-inch and 250 x 6-inch howitzer shells were fired at the post in fifteen minutes. At 5:30 p.m. fifty British troops attacked up Serre Trench and along the ground on either side, as fast as they could through the mud and re-captured the post, taking nine prisoners for a loss of one casualty. An attack by the 3rd Division on Post 88 to the left at the same also succeeded. German artillery-fire was so severe, that the British were forced back out but were able to return after the bombardment, before German infantry arrived and defended the post until they ran out of hand-grenades and withdrew; the post was recaptured again and consolidated when a fresh supply of grenades arrived.[16]

Ancre, winter 1917[edit | edit source]

Trench raid, 4/5 February[edit | edit source]

A 2nd Division battalion was ordered to prepare a raid for the night of 4/5 February. The raiding-party was to have two officers and 60 men and stretcher-bearers, for an attack on a salient at the junction of Guard and Desire Support trenches, to take prisoners or documents, destroy machine-guns, study the state of the trenches and the way the Germans were holding the line. Stokes mortars were to be used for bombardment but no artillery was to be fired before the raid; when it began the artillery was to fire a box barrage, to isolate the objective. White suits were provided, in case of snow on the ground and all means of identification were to be removed by the raiders, who were told to give name, rank and number only if captured. A deputy was to be chosen to take over if the raid leader became a casualty. That night the 1st Royal Berkshire battalion was relieved and went into reserve near La Boiselle. Trenches resembling the target were found and used for five day and night rehearsals. The attack was scheduled for 3:00 a.m. on 5 February and the party moved forward to the Miraumont dug-outs, at 6:00 p.m. on 2 February. The battalion commander made a reconnaissance and chose the jumping-off position. Three wooden markers, painted black on the British side and white on the German, to mark the centre and flanks of the raiding route, were placed in no man's land, about 30 yards (27 m) beyond the British wire.[13]

About 15 minutes before zero hour, the party stole forward in pairs, wearing white smocks and helmet-covers and formed two waves 15 yards (14 m) apart at the tripods. Three more tripods had been placed 30–40 yards (27–37 m) further on, to help the raiders keep direction. The Stokes mortars of the 99th Trench Mortar Battery opened fire, one mortar firing "rapid" at a particular German post at zero and one minute later, the divisional artillery began the box-barrage, as the raiding party moved to within 50 yards (46 m) of the objective and lay down. When the Stokes mortars ceased fire, the party rushed the German position through three rows of barbed wire, each 2.5 feet (0.76 m) thick. The first wave moved towards the east side of the salient, then from there to the western face, as the second wave jumped over the trench and ran along the parados, until they saw Germans in the trench near the apex. Several Germans were shot and the rest taken prisoner. After twenty minutes searching dug-outs, the party withdrew with 51 prisoners (including two officers), having smashed a machine-gun and killed or wounded 14 German soldiers. One raider was killed and twelve wounded. Another raid was ordered for 8/9 February, then postponed until 10 February. On this raid several Germans were killed as they retreated and soldiers in four dug-outs were killed with hand-grenades, when they refused to surrender. Seven prisoners were taken and the party of 36 lost three killed, seven wounded and three missing. The Germans retaliated on 12 February, when about 70 men raided the area between posts 9 and 10 and took seven prisoners. Five dead Germans were found between the posts but machine-gun fire prevented no man's land being searched.[17]

11 January – 14 February[edit | edit source]

The British operations at the end of the Battle of the Ancre in November 1916, had captured German positions on Beaumont Hamel spur and the village of Beaucourt, before the weather stopped operations. In the early hours of 10 January, a battalion of the 7th Division attacked "The Triangle" and the trenches either side, including Muck Trench about 1,000 yards (910 m) east of Beaumont Hamel. The attack began after an 18-hour bombardment and a standing barrage on the objective. Due to the state of the ground, the infantry advanced in three parties, which carried duckboards and had 20 minutes to cross 200–300 yards (180–270 m) of no man's land. The objectives were consolidated and a German counter-attack was broken up by British artillery fire; a prisoner later said that a second one was cancelled; the 7th Division captured 142 prisoners, for a loss of 65 casualties. The success covered the right flank of the 7th Division for the main attack next day against Munich Trench, from The Triangle to the Beaumont Hamel–Serre road and a smaller attack by the 11th Division, against German defences east of Muck Trench. The 11th Division operation failed, when an unknown German dug-out was overrun in the fog. German troops emerged and attacked the British troops from behind, at the same time that German counter-attacks from further east began, which pushed the British back to their start line.[18]

A bombardment had been fired on the whole Fifth Army front for two days, particularly in the neighbourhood of Serre, intended to mislead the Germans. The attack by a brigade of the 7th Division began at 5:00 a.m., when the leading companies lined up on tapes, 200–300 yards (180–270 m) from Munich Trench. At 6:37 a.m. three divisional artilleries began a standing barrage on the trench and a creeping barrage started in no man's land in thick fog. Movement was so difficult that the barrage moved at 100 yards (91 m) in ten minutes. German resistance was slight, except at one post where the garrison held on until 8:00 a.m. After the fog cleared at 10:30 a.m., the ground was consolidated, most of it being free from observation by the Germans. V Corps took over from XIII Corps, with the 32nd and 19th divisions by 11 January, with II Corps on the south bank facing north, with the 2nd and 18th divisions. The 11th Division stayed in the line, for another attack on the slope west of the Beaucourt–Puisieux road. The bunker overrun in the previous attack was found empty but German artillery caused many casualties, before a British bombardment stopped a German counter-attack as it was forming up at 10:00 a.m.; the division was relieved on 20 January. For the rest of the month British troops sapped forward, by digging new posts in advance of their positions at night and then linking them to the front line before repeating the process, over the crest of Beaumont Hamel spur. The freeze continued to make movement easier, despite temperatures which fell to 15 °F (−9 °C) on 25 January. Trench foot cases declined and small attacks became easier, although digging was almost impossible. The rearrangement of corps and divisions on the Fifth Army front continued, with the IV Corps moving to the southern boundary of the Fourth Army, to take over ground from the French Sixth Army. Command of I Anzac Corps on the northern Fourth Army boundary, was transferred to the Fifth Army.[19]

The 32nd Division in V Corps, advanced slightly into unoccupied ground on 2 February, near the Beaucourt–Puisieux road and next day Puisieux and River trenches, running north from the Ancre west of Grandcourt, were attacked by the 63rd Division. A surprise attack was attempted, despite moonlight and snow on the ground. Two battalions advanced on a 1,300-yard (1,200 m) front, with one battalion guarding the left flank. Neighbouring divisional artilleries co-operated and a decoy barrage was fired near Pys, on the Fourth Army boundary. Counter-battery fire began on all German batteries in range at 11:03 a.m. and seven heavy artillery groups bombarded Grandcourt, Baillescourt Farm, Beauregard Dovecote and German trench lines. Direction was lost during the infantry advance but by dawn the wreckage of Puisieux and River trenches had been captured, apart from about 200 yards (180 m) in the centre and posts on either flank. A German counter-attack on the right at 10:30 a.m., recaptured a post and at 4:00 a.m., a second attack was stopped by artillery fire. In the evening another British battalion continued the attack, as German counter-attacks were made through the night, which recaptured several posts near the river. The last part of Puisieux Trench was captured in the morning at 11:30 a.m., with 671 British casualties and 176 German prisoners taken. Grandcourt on the south bank of the Ancre, had been made untenable and was abandoned by the Germans overnight, which led the British to bring forward an attack on Baillescourt Farm, late on 7 February by the 63rd Division. The division captured the farm and south of Grandcourt, part of Folly Trench was taken by the 18th Division.[20]

On 10 February the 32nd Division threatened Serre with an advance of 600 yards (550 m), capturing the rest of Ten Tree Alley east of the road from Beaumont to Serre. The temperature was still below freezing but slightly warmer than earlier, which made movement relatively easy for the 97th Brigade battalions, which attacked on a front of 1,100 yards (1,000 m). A German counter-attack at 4:30 a.m. on 11 February, recaptured part of the trench before being forced out. On 13 February another German attack recaptured half of the trench, before two fresh British battalions drove them out. The advance was costly, with 382 British casualties, "heavy" German losses and 210 prisoners taken. All of the small British attacks had succeeded and each capture of ground had secured a view over another part of the German defences and denied the defenders observation over British positions. Over the next few days, the Fourth Army extended its front southwards to Genermont and the transfer of I Anzac Corps was completed on 15 February, the Fifth Army boundary being extended to the north of Gueudecourt.[21]

Actions of Miraumont, 17–18 February[edit | edit source]

File:Action of Miraumont.jpg

Action of Miraumont, 17–18 February 1917

As a preliminary to capturing the Loupart Wood line (another British term for R. I Stellung), Gough intended the Fifth Army to continue the process of small advances in the Ancre valley, by attacking Hill 130, the Butte de Warlencourt, Gueudecourt, Serre and Miraumont, before attacking the Loupart Wood line three days before the Third Army offensive at Arras. The capture of Hill 130, would command the southern approach to Miraumont and Pys, exposing German artillery positions behind Serre to ground observation, while attacks on the north bank took ground overlooking Miraumont from the west, possibly inducing the Germans to withdraw voluntarily and uncover Serre. II Corps planned to attack on 17 February with the 2nd, 18th and 63rd divisions, on a 3,000-yard (2,700 m) front. With the ground still frozen, assembly trenches could not be dug, so it was decided that the troops would assemble in the open for the attack.[22]

The artillery of II Corps began a destructive and wire-cutting bombardment on 14 February, using the new fuze 106 against the German wire, which proved an effective wire-cutter, although fog and mist made aiming and observation of the results difficult. At zero hour, four siege groups were to begin a bombardment of rear lines and machine-gun nests and four counter-battery groups were to neutralize German artillery within range of the attack.[Note 5] Artillery tactics were based on the experience of 1916, with a creeping barrage fired by half of the 18-pdrs, beginning 200 yards (180 m) in front of the infantry and moving at 100 yards (91 m) in three minutes. Other 18-pdrs searched and swept the area from the German trenches to 250 yards (230 m) further back in succession, as the British infantry reached and attacked them. The rest of the 18-pdrs fired standing barrages on each line of trenches, until the creeping barrage arrived then lifted with it. A protective barrage was then formed beyond the objective, according to the barrage timetable.[22]

A thaw set in on 16 February and next dawn, there were dark clouds overhead and mist on the ground, which turned soft and slippery before reverting to deep mud. The speed of the creeping barrage had been based on the infantry crossing frozen ground and was too fast for the conditions. At 4:30 a.m. the German artillery bombarded the front from which the British were to attack, apparently alerted by a captured document and a deserter.[24] The German bombardment caused many casualties as the British infantry assembled but no retaliatory fire was opened, in the hope that the German artillery would not be provoked. The subsidiary attack on the right flank, on Desire Support and Guard trenches south of Pys, by a 6th Brigade battalion of the 2nd Division, disappeared into the dark until 9:00 a.m., when it was reported that the attackers had been repulsed from the objective; British casualties and daylight made a resumption of the attack impossible. The effect of the failure on the right affected the attack further west by the 99th Brigade of the 2nd Division and the 54th and 53rd brigades of the 18th Division, which attacked the high ground from the right-hand Courcelette–Miraumont road, to the Albert–Arras railway line in the Ancre valley.

The divisional boundary was west of the western road from Courcelette to Miraumont, the 99th Brigade attacking on a 700 yards (640 m) front, with boundaries marked by the two sunken roads. The 54th Brigade had a front which sloped steeply to the left and included Boom Ravine (Baum Mulde), with both brigades vulnerable to flanking fire from the right. The 53rd Brigade on the left of the attack had a wider front, much of which was also exposed to fire from the positions on the north bank due to be attacked by the 63rd Division and was to consolidate at the second objective. The main attack had three objectives, the first about 600 yards (550 m) forward along the southern slope of Hill 130, the second at South Miraumont Trench required an advance of another 600 yards (550 m) to the north slope of Hill 130 on the right and the railway between Grandcourt and Miraumont on the western flank and the final objective was the southern fringe of Petit Miraumont.[25]

Each brigade attacked with two battalions, the 99th Brigade with two companies to extend the defensive flank formed on the right with the subsidiary attack and 2½ companies following-on to leap-frog through to the final objective. In the 18th Division area the 54th Brigade attacked with an extra company, to capture dug-outs up to Boom Ravine and consolidate the first objective, while the 53rd Brigade formed a defensive flank on the left. Artillery support came from the divisional artillery, army field brigades and the neighbouring Australian corps.[Note 6] The creeping and standing barrages began at 5:45 a.m. and the infantry advanced against a sparse German artillery reply. The German infantry proved alert and inflicted many casualties with small-arms fire, which with the darkness, fog and a sea of mud slowed the advance and caused units to become disorganised. The 99th Brigade reached the first objective and established a defensive flank against German counter-attacks but the 54th Brigade found uncut wire at Grandcourt Trench and lost the barrage while looking for gaps. The German garrison was able to emerge from cover and engage the British infantry, holding them up on the right. The left-hand battalion found more gaps but had so many casualties that it was also held up. On the 53rd Brigade front, Grandcourt Trench was captured quickly but the advance was held up at Coffee Trench by more uncut wire.[27]

The Germans in Boom Ravine were engaged from the flank and three machine-guns silenced, before the advance in the centre resumed and infantry found their way through the wire at Coffee Trench and captured it by 6:10 a.m. Boom Ravine was eventually captured at 7:45 a.m. and the advance resumed, a long way behind the creeping barrage and the line outside Petit Miraumont was attacked. The 99th Brigade attack on the right, advanced towards the second objective but was much hampered by the fog and mud. The failure to maintain the defensive flank on the right left the Germans free to rake the brigade with machine-gun fire from the right, which caused more casualties. South Miraumont Trench was entered by a small number of troops, who were then forced back to the first objective. Fresh German troops also counter-attacked from Petit Miraumont and the railway bank to the west. Many of the British troops had weapons clogged with mud and fell back, the troops on the right forming a defensive flank along West Miraumont road, where they were fired on from South Miraumont Trench behind its left flank and withdrew to a line 100 yards (91 m) north of Boom Ravine. The attack had not reached its furthest objectives but had advanced the line 500 yards (460 m) on the right, 1,000 yards (910 m) in the centre and 800 yards (730 m) on the left. Boom Ravine was captured but the Germans had retained Hill 130 and inflicted 118 casualties on the 6th Brigade, 779 casualties on the 99th Brigade of the 2nd Division and 1,189 casualties in the 18th Division, a total of 2,207 British casualties.[27]

On the north bank, the 63rd Division attacked with the 188th Brigade and two battalions of the 189th Brigade, to capture 700 yards (640 m) of the road north from Baillescourt Farm towards Puisieux, to gain observation over Miraumont and form a defensive flank on the left, back to the existing front line. Two battalions attacked with a third battalion ready on the right flank to reinforce them or to co-operate with the 18th Division between the Ancre and the Miraumont road. On the northern flank two infantry companies, engineers and pioneers were placed to establish the defensive flank on the left. The divisional artillery and an army field brigade with 54 x 18-pdr field guns and 18 x 4.5-inch howitzers provided fire support, with three field batteries from the 62nd Division further north, to place a protective barrage along the northern flank. The darkness, fog and mud were as bad as on the south bank but the German defence was far less effective. The creeping barrage moved at 100 yards (91 m) in four minutes, slower than the rate on the south bank and the Germans in a small number of strong-points were quickly overcome. The objective was reached by 6:40 a.m. and the defensive flank established, a final German strong-point being captured at 10:50 a.m. No German counter-attack was made until next day, which was stopped by artillery-fire. The 63rd Division lost 549 casualties and the three divisions took 599 prisoners.[28]

The sudden thaw, fog and unexpected darkness interfered with wire-cutting, slowed the infantry, who fell behind the barrage and the apparent betrayal of the attack forewarned the German defenders, who were able to contain the attack and inflict considerable casualties.[28] Troops were ordered to edge forward during the next few days, wherever German resistance was slight but the failure to capture Hill 130 and persistent fog, left the British overlooked and unable accurately to bombard German positions. Further deliberate attacks intended on Crest Trench were made impossible by a downpour which began on 20 February. Edging forward continued in the 2nd Division area, which had gained 100 yards (91 m) since 19 February. From 10 January – 22 February the Germans had been pushed back 5 miles (8.0 km) on a 4 miles (6.4 km) front.[29] The effect of the Action of Miraumont, was to force the Germans to begin to withdraw from the Ancre valley before the planned withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line began.[30] At 2:15 a.m. on 24 February reports arrived that the Germans had gone and by 10:00 a.m. patrols from the 2nd Australian Division on the right and the 2nd and 18th Divisions in the centre and left, were advancing in a thick mist with no sign of German troops.[31] Further south the German positions around Le Transloy were found abandoned on the night of 12/13 March and Australian Light Horse and infantry patrols entered Bapaume on 17 March.[32]

Somme, winter 1917[edit | edit source]

Minor operations[edit | edit source]

During January and February, the Fourth Army began to relieve French troops south of Bouchavesnes. XV Corps took over the ground south to the Somme on 22 January, III Corps moved south to Genermont on 13 February and IV Corps transferred from the Fifth Army to relieve French forces south to the Amiens–Roye road. Despite the disruption of these moves, minor operations were conducted, to deceive the Germans that the Battle of the Somme was resuming. On 27 January a brigade of the 29th Division attacked northwards, on a 750 yards (690 m) front astride the Frégicourt–Le Transloy road, towards an objective 400 yards (370 m) away. The attack had the support of creeping and standing barrages from 96 x 18-pdr field guns, extended on either side by the neighbouring divisions and 16 x 4.5-inch howitzers, 2 x 6-inch and one 9.2-inch howitzer batteries. A section of 8-inch howitzers was available for the bombardment of strong-points and road junctions and the XIV Corps heavy batteries were able to neutralize German artillery during the attack. The operation took the unusually large number of 368 prisoners, for a loss of 382 casualties.[33]

A 400 yards (370 m) length of Stormy Trench was attacked, by part of a battalion of the 2nd Australian Division late on 1 February, which took the left-hand section and bombed down it to take the rest, before being forced out by a German counter-attack at 4:00 a.m. The Australians attacked again on the night of 4 February, with a battalion and an attached company, with more artillery support and a stock of 12,000 grenades, since the first attack had been defeated when they ran out. The attack succeeded and a German counter-attack was repulsed after a long bombing-fight, although the Australians had more casualties (350–250 losses) in the success than the earlier failed attack. On 8 February, a battalion of the 17th Division attacked part of a trench overlooking Saillisel, after it had taken three weeks to dig assembly trenches in the frozen ground. Artillery support was similar to that of the 29th Division attack and the objective was gained quickly, with troops wearing sandbags over their boots to grip the ice. German counter-attacks failed but a greater number of casualties were inflicted after the attack, mainly by German artillery fire over the next two days. British attacks on the Fourth Army front ceased until the end of the month.[34]

The 8th Division conducted an attack on 4 March, which was prepared in great detail, a practice that had fallen into disuse in 1915 due to the dilution of skill and experience, caused by the losses of 1914 and the rapid expansion of the army in 1915–1916.[35] In February, instructions were issued from the divisional headquarters covering communications, supply dumps, equipment, arms and ammunition to be carried by each soldier, the proportion of the attacking units to be left out of battle, medical arrangements, substitute commanders, liaison, wire-cutting and bombardment arrangements, SOS signals for artillery and machine-gun barrages, gas bombardment, smoke screens and measures to deal with stragglers and prisoners. The instructions went into great detail, stipulating that officers were to dress the same as their men, precautions to be taken to stop machine-gun barrages falling on friendly troops, the positions of observers and the calculation of safety distances. Signals to open fire were a green very light, a red and white rocket, a yellow and black flag or Morse SOS by signal lamp, at which the machine-gunners were to fire for ten minutes. Low morale existed in British as well as German units and special arrangements were made to collect "stragglers" at brigade and divisional posts, where soldiers names were to be taken, before being rearmed and equipped with items taken from wounded troops in Advanced Dressing Stations.[36]

The objective of the attack was to capture the north end of the Épine de Malassise, a hog's-back (a long, "sharp-crested") ridge, which overlooked Bouchavesnes and the Moislains valley towards Nurlu and to deny observation of the valley behind Bouchavesnes and the view towards Rancourt to the Germans. Two trenches on a front of 1,200 yards (1,100 m) were to be captured to the east and north-east of the village, which would also threaten the German positions north of Péronne, potentially hastening any German withdrawal contemplated on the Somme front. The 25th Brigade on the right was to attack with one battalion on a 300-yard (270 m) front and the 24th Brigade on the left was to attack with two battalions over a 800 yards (730 m) front, with mopping-up parties and carriers provided by other battalions. No destructive bombardment on the objectives was fired, as it was intended to occupy them but wire-cutting and the bombardment of strong-points, trench junctions, machine-gun nests, took place for several days before the attack. Machine-gun barrages fired over the heads of the attacking troops and on the flanks, were arranged with the divisional machine-gun unit and that of the 40th Division.[37]

The freezing weather prevented the digging of assembly trenches and the leading waves had to form up on lines of tapes, ready for the attack to begin at 5:15 a.m. Chewing-gum was issued to the troops, which stopped them coughing, a slight mist aided concealment and a slight frost improved the going. The barrage began on time and after five minutes began to lift. The first objective at Pallas Trench was taken on time with few losses and at the junction of the attacking brigades, a small section which held out was quickly captured, before reverse fire by the Germans there could stop the troops who had passed beyond. Pallas Trench was occupied by moppers-up and the attacking troops reached the second objective at Fritz Trench on the right and Pallas Support Trench on the left. Some troops advanced so swiftly, that they went beyond the objective to Fritz Trench and captured a machine-gun before returning.[37]

The German defenders had repulsed the attack at a position called "The Triangle" and when eventually captured, troops on the flanks were needed to reinforce the attacking troops, who had incurred many losses. British arrangements for holding captured ground worked well and a German battalion preparing to counter-attack from a wood near Moislains, was dispersed by the machine-gun barrage with 400 casualties. German troops overrun by the attack, were captured or killed by mopping-up parties following the advanced troops. During the day the Germans nearby, counter-attacked five times over open ground but the observation obtained from Fritz Trench, led to them being easily seen and repulsed by small-arms fire. German attempts to bomb their way back up communication trenches were also defeated. German artillery-fire on the captured area, the former no man's land and around Bouchavesnes caused considerably more casualties, when two communications trenches were being dug, to link the new positions with the old British front line.[Note 7][38]

German bombardments continued during the night of 4/5 March, before an attack on the British right flank, which captured a trench block and about 100 yards (91 m) of Fritz Trench to the north, before a local counter-attack recovered the recaptured ground. German artillery-fire continued all day and at 7:30 p.m., German infantry seen massing on the right flank, were dispersed by SOS artillery and machine-gun barrages before they could attack; German bombardments continued on 6 March before slowly diminishing. The operation cost the British 1,137 casualties, 217 German prisoners and seven machine-guns were captured and "exceedingly heavy" German casualties inflicted, according to surveys of the vicinity after the German withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line (Siegfriedstellung). The new positions menaced the German defences at Péronne and the defences further south, which with the capture of Irles by the Fifth Army on 10 March, forced the Germans commence their retirement towards the Siegfriedstellung two weeks early.[1]

Air operations[edit | edit source]

Sopwith Pup, RIAT 2008 (2831140422)

The Royal Flying Corps undertook a considerable tactical reorganisation after the battle of the Somme, according to the principles incorporated in documents published between November 1916 and April 1917.[39][Note 8] During the winter on the Somme 1916–1917, the new organisation proved effective. On the few days of good flying weather, much air fighting took place, as German aircraft began to patrol the front line; of 27 British aircraft shot down in December 1916, 17 aeroplanes were lost on the British side of the front line. German aircraft were most active on the Arras front to the north of the Somme, where Jasta 11 was based.[41]

By January 1917 the German aerial resurgence had been contained by formation-flying and the dispatch of Royal Naval Air Service ("RNAS") pilots from Dunkirk flying the Sopwith Pup, which had a comparable performance to the best German aircraft; both sides also began to conduct routine night operations. Distant reconnaissance continued, despite the danger of interception by superior German aircraft, to observe the German fortification-building behind the Somme and Arras fronts, which had been detected in November 1916. On 25 February, reconnaissance crews brought news of numerous fires burning behind the German front line, all the way back to the new fortifications. Next day 18 Squadron reported the formidable nature of the new line and the strengthening of German intermediate lines on the Somme front.[41]

Aftermath[edit | edit source]

German withdrawals on the Ancre[edit | edit source]

British attacks in January 1917, had taken place against exhausted German troops holding poor defensive positions left over from the fighting in 1916; some troops had low morale and showed an unusual willingness to surrender. The army group commander Generalfeldmarschall Crown Prince Rupprecht, advocated a withdrawal to the Siegfriedstellung on 28 January, which was initially refused but then authorised on 4 February and the first "Alberich day" was set for 9 February. The British attacks at Miraumont on 17–18 February and anticipation of further attacks, led Rupprecht on 18 March to order a withdrawal of about 3 miles (4.8 km) on a 15-mile (24 km) front of the First Army to the R. I Stellung, from Essarts to Le Transloy on 22 February.[42] The withdrawal caused some surprise to the British, despite the interception of wireless messages from 20–21 February. The second German withdrawal on 11 March, took place during the British bombardment preparatory to an attack and was not noticed until the night of 12 March, when British patrols found the line empty between Bapaume and Achiet le Petit and strongly held on either flank. A British attack on Bucquoy at the north end of R. I Stellung on the night of 13/14 March was a costly failure. German withdrawals on the Ancre spread south, beginning with a retirement from the salient around St. Pierre Vaast Wood. On 16 March, the main German withdrawal to the Siegfriedstellung began.[43] The retirement was conducted in a slow and deliberate manner, through a series of defensive lines over 25 miles (40 km) at the deepest point, behind rear-guards, local counter-attacks and the demolitions of the Alberich plan.[44]

Analysis[edit | edit source]

German withdrawals (un-shaded area), Bapaume Salient, March 1917

British operations on the Ancre, took place during a period of considerable change in British methods and equipment. Over the winter, an increasing flow of weapons and munitions from British industry and overseas suppliers, was used to increase the number of Lewis guns to 16 per battalion, a scale of one per platoon.[45] A new infantry training manual (which became SS 143 of February 1917) to standardise the structure, equipment and methods of the infantry platoon, was prepared over the winter and the division was re-organised, according to the system given in SS 135 of December 1916. The 8th Division attack at Bouchavesnes on 4 March, took place after the changes to the structure, equipment and training of infantry platoons had been implemented, which provided platoons with the means to fight forward, in the absence of artillery support and under local command, as part of a much more structured all-arms attack than had been achieved in 1916.[46]

The advance was still conducted in waves behind a creeping barrage, to ensure that the infantry arrived simultaneously at German trenches but the waves were composed of skirmish lines and columns of sections, often advancing in "artillery formation", to allow them to deploy quickly, when German resistance was encountered. Artillery formation covered a 100-yard (91 m) frontage and 30–50-yard (27–46 m) depth in a lozenge shape, the rifle section forward with the rifle bombers and bombing section arranged behind on either side. The platoon headquarters followed, slightly in front of the Lewis gun section. Artillery was much more plentiful and efficient and had been equipped with a local communications network, which led a corresponding devolution of authority and a much quicker response to changing circumstances. The success of the attack led to a set of the orders and instructions being sent to the U.S. Command & Staff College to serve as models.[47]

The organisation of artillery was revised according to a War Office pamphlet of January 1917, "Artillery Notes No.4–Artillery in Offensive Operations", which put the artillery of each corps under one commander, established a Counter Bombardment Staff Officer, provided for the artillery of several divisions to be coordinated and laid down that artillery matters were to be considered from the beginning when planning an attack. The roles of equipment were standardised, the 18-pounder field gun was to be mainly used for barrages, bombardment of German infantry in the open, obstructing communications close to the front line, wire cutting, destroying breastworks and preventing the repair of defences, using high explosive (H. E.), Shrapnel shell and the new smoke shells. The QF 4.5-inch howitzer was to be used for neutralising German artillery with gas shells, bombarding weaker defences, blocking communication trenches, night barrages and wire-cutting on ground where field guns could not reach. The BL 60 pounder gun was to be used for longer-range barrages and counter-battery fire, the 6-inch Gun for counter-battery fire, neutralisation-fire and wire-cutting using fuze 106. The larger howitzers were reserved for counter-battery fire against well-protected German artillery and the larger guns for long-range fire against targets like road junctions, bridges and headquarters.[48]

Co-ordination of artillery was improved by using more telephone exchanges, which put artillery observers in touch with more batteries. Observing stations were built to report to artillery headquarters located at corps headquarters, on the progress of infantry and a corps signals officer was appointed to oversee artillery communication, which had become much more elaborate. Visual signalling was used as a substitute for line communications but some short-range (7,000-yard (6,400 m)) wireless transmitters were introduced; weighing 101 pounds (46 kg), needing four men to carry and considerable time to set up, they proved of limited value. Artillery boards came into use, which had blank sheets with a 1:10,000 scale grid in place of maps, datum shooting was used to check gun accuracy 2–3 times a day and better calibration drills and meteor (weather) telegrams were announced. The tactical role of artillery was defined as, the overpowering of enemy artillery, the killing or incapacitating of enemy infantry and the destruction of defences and other obstacles to movement. Barbed-wire was the most difficult obstruction to tackle and 1,800–2,400 yards (1,600–2,200 m) was the best range for cutting it with 18-pdr field guns (with regular calibration and stable gun platforms), conditions which were not always met.[49]

A barrage drill was devised "to prevent the enemy from manning his parapets and installing his machine-guns in time to meet the assault". Attacks were supported by "creeping" barrages, "standing" barrages covered an area for a period of time, "back" barrages were to cover exploitation by "searching" and "sweeping" ground, to catch troops and reinforcements while moving. One 18-pdr for each 15 yards (14 m) of barrage line was specified, to be decided at the corps artillery headquarters and creeping barrages should move at 100 yards (91 m) a minute and stop 300 yards (270 m) beyond an objective, to allow the infantry room to consolidate. Surplus guns were added the barrage, to be ready to engage unforeseen targets. A limit of four shells per minute was imposed on 18-pdr guns, to retard barrel wear (before 1917 lack of ammunition had made barrel-wear a minor problem) and use of smoke shell was recommended, despite the small quantity available. Ammunition expenditure rates were laid down for each type of gun and howitzer, with 200 shells per gun per day for the 18-pdr.[49]

The experience of the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) in 1916, showed that single-engined fighters with superior performance could operate in pairs but where the aircraft were of inferior performance, formation flying was essential, even though fighting in the air split formations. By flying in formations made up of permanent sub-units of 2–3 aircraft, British squadrons gained the benefit of concentration and a measure of flexibility, the formations being made up of three units; extra formations could be added to be mutually supporting. Tactics were left to individual discretion but freelancing became less marked. By the end of the Somme battle, it had become common for reconnaissance aircraft to operate in formation with escorts and for bomber formations to have a close escort of six F.E.2bs and a distant escort of six single-seater fighters. The revival of the Luftstreitkräfte in late 1916, led in October to the British using wireless interception stations (Compass Stations) quickly to locate aircraft operating over the British front, as part of an integrated system. Trained observers gleaned information on German aircraft movements from wireless signals or ground observation and communicated the bearing from interception stations by wireless, to wing headquarters or telephoned squadrons direct. Aircraft on patrol were directed to busy areas of the front by ground signals, although no attempt was made to control the interception of individual aircraft from the ground.[50]

Alberich Bewegung ("Alberich Manoeuvre"), spring 1917[edit | edit source]

German withdrawal from the Bapaume and Noyon salients.

The severe cold ended in March and thaws turned the roads behind the British front into mudslides. German demolitions provided means to repair roads, once the British advance began but traffic carrying the material did as much damage as the weather. Attempts to move artillery forward encountered severe delays. Ammunition had been moved forward in preference to road material in February and the German withdrawals in the Ancre valley, left the guns out of range.[51] During the winter, many British draught horses had died of cold, overwork and lack of food, leaving the Fifth Army 14,000 horses short. The line of the road from Serre to Bucquoy, through Puisieux was almost impossible to trace but the 62nd and 19th divisions, on the flanks of the 7th Division of V Corps, fought its way into Puisieux on 27 February and began skirmishing towards Bucquoy by 2 March.[52]

The 18th Division surrounded and swiftly captured Irles on 10 March and the 7th and 46th divisions were ordered to occupy Bucquoy on 14 March, after air reconnaissance reported it almost empty. Protests were made by Major-General G. de S. Barrow, the 7th Division commander, Brigadier-General H. Cumming, commander of the 91st Brigade, Major-General W. Thwaites of the 46th Division and the commander of the 137th Brigade, after patrols had reported that the village was protected by many machine-guns and three belts of wire, despite two days of wire-cutting. The V Corps commander Lieut.-General E. Fanshawe, insisted that the attack go ahead and only agreed to delay until the moonrise at 1:00 a.m. The artillery bombardment was fired from 10:00 p.m.–10:30 p.m. alerting the German defenders, who repulsed the attack. The 91st Brigade lost 262 casualties and the 137th Brigade 312 casualties; the Germans withdrew two days later.[52][53]

On 19 March, I Anzac Corps was ordered to advance on Lagnicourt and Noreuil, under the impression that fires seen, foreshadowed a retirement beyond the Hindenburg Line. The 2nd Australian Division and the 5th Australian Division were past Bapaume, towards Beaumetz and Morchies and followed up the withdrawal of the 26th Reserve Division from Vaux-Vraucourt.[54] Beaumetz was captured by 22 March and then lost during the night to a German counter-attack, which led the Australians to plan the capture Doignies and Louveral, by the 15th Brigade in daylight without artillery or flank support. The attack was countermanded by the divisional commander, Major-General Talbot Hobbs as soon as he heard of it and Brigadier-General Elliott was nearly sacked. The 7th Division commander, after the costly repulse at Bucquoy, delayed his 1,200-yard (1,100 m) advance on Ecoust and Croisilles, to liaise with the 58th Division to the north-west.[55]

Gough ordered the attack on Croisilles to begin without delay but the advance was stopped by the Germans, at a belt of uncut wire on the outskirts of the village, leading to Gough sacking Barrow and leaving his replacement Major-General T. Shoubridge, under no doubt about the need for haste. The Hindenburg Line was unfinished on the Fifth Army front and a rapid advance through the German rearguards in the outpost villages, might make a British attack possible before the Germans were able to make the line "impregnable".[55] The village eventually fell during a larger co-ordinated attack on a 10-mile (16 km) front on 2 April, by I Anzac Corps on the right flank and the 7th and 21st divisions of V Corps on the left, after four days of bombardment and wire-cutting.[56]

File:5th Australian Division advance to the Hindenburg Line, 17 March - 6 April 1917.jpg

5th Australian Division advance to the Hindenburg Line, 17 March – 6 April 1917

The British Official Historian C. Falls, described the great difficulty in moving over devastated ground beyond the British front line. Worse difficulty was found carrying supplies and equipment over roads behind the original British front line, due to over-use, repeated freezing and thaws, the destruction of the roads beyond no man's land and demolitions behind the German front line. The British command was reluctant to risk unsupported forces against a German counter-attack and the evidence from the Fifth Army front, that hasty attacks became impractical once the Germans had begun the main retirement (16–20 March), led to a steady pursuit instead.[57] The Australian Official Historian, Charles Bean, wrote that the advanced troops of I Anzac Corps had gone out on a limb, which had led to the reverse at Noreuil on 20 March, after instructions from the Fifth Army headquarters to press forward to the Hindenburg Line were misinterpreted.[58]

Advances were delayed as roads were rebuilt and more pack transport was organised, to carry supplies forward for larger attacks on the German outpost villages. In 1998, Walker contrasted the local withdrawals on the Ancre valley, where hasty but well organised British attacks, had sometimes succeeded in ousting German garrisons. The determined German defence of outpost villages, after the rapid and scheduled part of the German retirement over 2–3 days, gained time to complete the remodelling of the Hindenburg Line, from south of Arras to St Quentin. The Fifth Army was far enough advanced by 8 April, to assist the Third Army attack at Arras on 9 April, having captured the outpost villages of Doignies, Louveral, Noreuil, Longatte, Ecoust St. Mein, Croisilles and Hénin sur Cojeul on 2 April.[59] Hermies, Demicourt and Boursies on the right flank, were captured by the 1st Australian Division on 8 April, after the Fourth Army took Havrincourt Wood on the right flank.[60]

Notes[edit | edit source]

  1. The British Official History and numerous other publications distinguish between local withdrawals, forced on the German First Army by British attacks on the Ancre in the new year against determined opposition and the main German withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line (Siegfriedstellung) which was mainly protected by rear-guards, other publications treat them as part of the same operation.[1][2][3]
  2. The first two German reserve lines had various British titles (Loupart/Bapaume/le Transloy/Bihucourt lines) and the third line was known as the Beugny–Ytres Switch. The first two lines were also known as the Allainesstellung and Arminstellung by the Germans.[5]
  3. 2nd Guard Reserve Division, 14th Bavarian Division, 33rd Division, 18th Division, 17th Division and the 1st Guard Reserve Division from north to south.[5]
  4. IV Corps: 51st Division, 61st Division and the 11th Division, XIII Corps held the north bank with 7th Division, 3rd Division and 31st Division. II Corps with the 2nd Division, 18th Division, 63rd Division and V Corps with the 19th Division and 32nd Division was in reserve.[7]
  5. Siege groups II, XXV, XXXVI and XL were heavy artillery groups with 10 x 6-inch howitzer, 5 x 8-inch howitzer, 2 x 9.2-inch howitzer batteries and two 15-inch howitzers. Counter-battery fire came from the IX, X, XIV and LV Heavy artillery groups, with 10 x 60-pdr gun, 2 x 6-inch gun, 1 x 4.7-inch howitzer, 2 x 6-inch howitzer, 2 x 8-inch howitzer, 2 x 9.2-inch howitzer, 2 x 12-inch howitzer batteries and 2 x 15-inch howitzers.[23]
  6. 150 x 18-pdr field guns, 42 x 4.5-inch howitzers plus four field artillery and two howitzer batteries of the 63rd Division on the south bank, firing from thirty minutes after zero hour to assist the 53rd Brigade, although the curve of the ground made aiming difficult.[26]
  7. On many occasions in 1917, British troops involved in successful attacks lost far more casualties to German bombardments afterwards, than during the assault.
  8. Notes on Aeroplane Fighting in Single-Seater Scouts (November 1916), Fighting in the Air (March 1917) and Aerial Cooperation During the Artillery Bombardment and the Infantry Attack (April 1917).[40]

Footnotes[edit | edit source]

  1. 1.0 1.1 Sheffield 2011, p. 211.
  2. Falls 1940, p. 93.
  3. Philpott 2009, p. 456.
  4. Boraston 1919, pp. 63–65.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Falls 1940, p. 64.
  6. Falls 1940, pp. 64–67.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Falls 1940, pp. 66–67.
  8. Falls 1940, pp. 127–130.
  9. Edmonds & Wynne 1940, pp. 59–61.
  10. Falls 1940, pp. 65–66.
  11. Bewsher 1921, pp. 128–131.
  12. Bewsher 1921, pp. 131–135.
  13. 13.0 13.1 Wyrall 1921, pp. 361–362.
  14. Atkinson 1927, pp. 324–329.
  15. Atkinson 1927, pp. 324–332.
  16. Atkinson 1927, pp. 330–332.
  17. Wyrall 1921, pp. 362–365.
  18. Falls 1940, pp. 66–68.
  19. Falls 1940, pp. 68–70.
  20. Falls 1940, pp. 70–72.
  21. Falls 1940, pp. 68–74.
  22. 22.0 22.1 Falls 1940, pp. 73–76.
  23. Falls 1940, p. 76.
  24. Falls 1940, p. 82.
  25. Falls 1940, pp. 77–78.
  26. Falls 1940, p. 79.
  27. 27.0 27.1 Falls 1940, pp. 78–81.
  28. 28.0 28.1 Falls 1940, pp. 81–82.
  29. Nicholson 1962, p. 241.
  30. Nichols 1922, p. 153.
  31. Wyrall 1921, pp. 374–375.
  32. Philpott 2009, pp. 458–459.
  33. Falls 1940, pp. 82–84.
  34. Falls 1940, pp. 84–86.
  35. Thomas 2010, p. 233.
  36. Thomas 2010, pp. 236–237.
  37. 37.0 37.1 Bax & Boraston 1926, pp. 101–103.
  38. Bax & Boraston 1926, pp. 103–106.
  39. Jones 1931, p. 317.
  40. Jones 1931, pp. 389–412.
  41. 41.0 41.1 Jones 1931, pp. 302–306.
  42. Bean 1941, p. 60.
  43. Falls 1940, pp. 94–110.
  44. Philpott 2009, p. 460.
  45. Falls 1940, p. 11.
  46. Sheffield 2011, pp. 209–211.
  47. Thomas 2010, pp. 245, 252.
  48. Farndale 1986, p. 158.
  49. 49.0 49.1 Farndale 1986, p. 159.
  50. Jones 1931, pp. 317–320.
  51. Walker 1998, p. 55.
  52. 52.0 52.1 Falls 1940, p. 109.
  53. Walker 1998, pp. 54–55.
  54. Walker 1998, pp. 54–59.
  55. 55.0 55.1 Walker 1998, pp. 60–61.
  56. Atkinson 1927, pp. 354–369.
  57. Falls 1940, pp. 162–167.
  58. Bean 1941, pp. 153–154.
  59. Walker 1998, p. 61.
  60. Falls 1940, pp. 168–169.

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