Divisional demarcation at the Battle of Loos

When researching for my chapter on the Battle of Loos – to be included in the follow up volume to “Stemming The Tide: Officers and Leadership in The British Expeditionary Force 1914”, I came across an interchange of memoranda between Major-Generals George Thesiger, commanding 9th (Scottish) Division, and Thompson Capper, commanding 7th Division, which sheds some light on the nature of the day to day relationship between divisions placed alongside each other in the frontline. The two divisions were then part of I Corps under Hubert Gough and were readying themselves for the battle that was to commence in fourteen days time.

Thesiger had sent a type-written note to 7th Division which was couched in a somewhat administrative and officious manner:
Screenshot 2014-12-20 18.05.20“As there seems to have been some misunderstanding about the new fire trench from K sap to your left sap head, I should like to point out that this Division does not recognise and has never recognised any responsibility for this portion of the line. The 120 yards of fire trench that the 9th Division has dug…has been undertaken by this Division voluntarily as a “quid pro quo” for the trench which was dug from Fontes des Marichons to Barts and afterwards handed over to us by the 7th Division and in order to work in a friendly spirit with this Division….I shall be glad if the 7th Division will undertake all further responsibility for this Section of the line. Do you agree to this arrangement?”

Capper responded by handwriting on the back of the memorandum the following: “As regards the labour of placing accessories in position, I understand you have to handle a number proportionate to those we have to handle as 3 is to 2. Under these conditions, I think the best plan would before us to completely take over the new trench…We would undertake all liabilities for the new trench…I will send a staff officer to meet anyone you delegate…and arrange the boundary mark.”
Screenshot 2014-12-20 18.05.34Both Thesiger and Capper were to be killed in action in the opening days of Loos and it is sometimes easy to get caught up in the action of the battle, thereby losing sight of the daily “management” tasks of commanders in the field. Who was responsible for which trench was simply one of the thousands of details that were under consideration by the staff at divisional and corps levels leading up to an offensive and gives a small insight into the scale of the operations these men were facing.

Stemming The Tide. Officers and Leadership in the British Expeditionary Force 1914.

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Having spent years reading military history, I have finally made it into print with a chapter in “Stemming The Tide. Officers and Leadership in the British Expeditionary Force 1914”.

This is the first volume in the Wolverhampton Military Studies Series and is an examination of command at all levels of the BEF in 1914 through a series of biographical essays on its key officers. Having finished my MA in 2011, I was approached and asked to contribute a chapter on Henry Wilson, the Sub-Chief of Staff during the opening months of the war. Wilson is a controversial figure who provokes a wide range of views on his military effectiveness – and in particular, his political “scheming” to achieve his ends. While his role as Sub-Chief did not entirely cover him in glory, he played a vital part in readying Britain for a Continental war through his activities initially as Commandant of the Staff College (1907-1910) and then as Director of Military Operations in the War Office (1910-1914).

I am very pleased with my chapter and to be included in such august company is a real honour. If you would like to read more – the book is out this month and will be officially launched at the University of Wolverhampton on 12th December.

Book description from the Helion & Co website:

The British Expeditionary Force of 1914 was described by the official historian as “incomparably the best trained, best organised, and best equipped British Army that ever went forth to war.” The BEF proved its fighting qualities in the fierce battles of 1914 and its reputation has endured. However, the same cannot be said for many of its commanders, who have frequently been portrayed as old fashioned, incompetent, and out of touch with events on the battlefield.

Yet the officers who led the BEF to war were every bit as professional and hard-bitten as the soldiers they commanded. These officers had learned their craft in the unforgiving school of colonial warfare and honed their understanding of conflict in the period of reform that reshaped the army between 1902 and 1914. As this book reveals, when faced with the realities of modern combat, the officers of the BEF were prepared for the challenge.

This collection offers a broad picture of command at all levels of the BEF through a series of biographical essays on key officers. Drawing upon much original research, each chapter explores the pre-war background and experience of the officer and assesses his performance in combat in the opening months of the First World War. The book features insightful reappraisals of famous figures including John French and Douglas Haig, fresh studies of staff officers such as William Robertson and Henry Wilson, and a thorough discussion of officers at the sharp end, with chapters covering divisional, brigade, battalion and company commanders.

The essays reveal an officer class that, despite certain weaknesses, provided highly effective leadership during the chaotic fighting of August to November 1914. Without their influence it is unlikely that the BEF would have been able to survive the difficulties of the Great Retreat, much less halt the German invasions of France and Belgium.

This book will be of great interest to anyone who studies the First World War, and of particular value to those who seek a greater understanding of the British Army of the era.

Book contents
List of illustrations
List of maps
Abbreviations
Notes on Contributors
Series Preface
Acknowledgements
Introduction by Spencer Jones

GHQ

1 Sir John French and Command of the BEF by Stephen Badsey

2 Major-General Sir Archibald Murray by J.M. Bourne

3 Henry Wilson’s War by Brian Curragh

4 ‘The big brain in the army’: Sir William Robertson as Quartermaster-General by John Spencer

Corps Command

5 The Making of a Corps Commander: Lieutenant-General Sir Douglas Haig by Gary Sheffield

6 Lieutenant-General Sir James Grierson by Mark Connelly

7 ‘A Commander of Rare and Unusual Coolness’: General Sir Horace Lockwood Smith-Dorrien by Spencer Jones and Steven J. Corvi

Divisional Command

8 The Bull and the Fox Terrier: Edmund Allenby and Command in the BEF in 1914 by Simon Robbins

9 An Inspirational Warrior: Major-General Sir Thompson Capper by Richard Olsen

Brigade Command

10 ‘A Tower of Strength’: Brigadier-General Edward Bulfin by Michael LoCicero

11 ‘The Demon’: Brigadier-General Charles FitzClarence V.C. by Spencer Jones

12 David Henderson and Command of the Royal Flying Corps by James Pugh

Command at the Sharp End

13 The Infantry Battalion Commanding Officers of the BEF by Peter Hodgkinson

14 The Company Commander by John Mason Sneddon

15 ‘Amateurs at a professional game’: The Despatch Rider Corps in 1914 by Michael Carragher

Appendix: British Expeditionary Force Order of Battle 1914

Index

Disquieting news from Fromelles

This disturbing report from Victoria Burbidge, representing the British Memorial Association, Fromelles, via Chris Baker’s Long Long Trail, deserves wider circulation.

National interests from the French & Australian authorities appear to be attempting to airbrush out the entire British contribution to the war in this area as it does not fit within the “scenography” of the new Pheasant Wood Cemetery’s visitor centre.

A very disappointing development – the British Memorial Association, Fromelles deserves all the support it can get to resist this.

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Five things I learnt at the 4th GWF Conference

Richard Van Emden – “Boy Soldiers of the Great War”
BritishArmyWWIMedalRollsIndexCards19141920_124810857The story of Jack Auguste Pouchot, the fifteen year old who won a Distinguished Conduct Medal for attempting to rescue two wounded men lying in No Man’s Land and who subsequently went on to join the Royal Flying Corps. Jack was killed flying a SE5a near Le Cateau on 5th October 1918 and is buried in Marcoing British Cemetery

Peter Barton – “La Boisselle: Archaeology, History, Technology and Genealogy”
Close-up-view-of-British-French-trenches-showing-openings-of-X-Incline-and-W-AditThe fantastic work being carried out by the La Boisselle Study Group in a truly multi-disciplinary study of a unique segment of the Great War frontline situated in the village of La Boisselle on the Somme. The surviving brick floors of the original farm buildings are covered only by inches of turf, while 100 feet underneath, the tunnels cut within the chalk still look pristine.

Peter Hart – “1914 – the French at War”
Screen Shot 2013-04-14 at 10.55.26The true cost paid by the French nation in the Great War – in particular the 27,000 killed on 22nd August 1914 in the Battle of the Frontiers – is an area frequently ignored by those who focus solely on British activities on the Western Front.

Simon Justice – “Drawing the Line: British Plans for Defence of the Western Front 1917-18”
scan0008That Martin Samuels was mistaken when he accused GHQ of an incomplete application of mis-understood & ineffective German defensive principles in the run-up to the Spring Offensive. Papers within the National Archives demonstrate that “defence in depth”, “blobbing” etc were all present in 1916 planning. The role and achievements of “warrior-gurus” such as Ivor Maxse, Cecil Pereira & Richard Haking is emerging through academic research.

Alan Wakefield – “Carry On Up The Tigris – the experiences of British and Indian troops in Mesopotamia 1914-1918”
800px-Maude_in_BaghdadThat the 27,000 “British” dead from the fighting in Mesopotamia could have been largely avoided if we had simply stopped after securing the oil ports and not decided to take the 400 mile distant prize of Baghdad as well.

Anti-British bias at “In Flanders Fields”?

This post has been provocatively titled to see if anyone else shares my confusion as to exactly what impression the people behind the “In Flanders Fields” museum in Ypres are trying to put across. While the new format is a distinct step up from the previous message-heavy style – albeit that I still think that exhibit labels might be an idea worth considering – I really do not understand why having “finished” the museum tour you find the following exhibits sidelined in the restaurant area.

In some display cases at the bottom of the stairs are some very impressive and personal memento’s of the senior British commanders of the BEF.

A label, signed by Haig which was attached to the wreath he laid at the inauguration of the Menin Gate on 24 July 1927.
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A signed portrait of Haig.
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Haig’s spirit burner that Dorothy had insisted he take to the front.
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A signed portrait of Sir John French.
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Plumer’s Field Marshal’s cap.
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A signed portrait of Plumer.
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HRH Prince Maurice of Battenberg’s sword, left with the owner of the estaminet where the 1st Battalion, 60th Rifles had billeted on 22nd August 1914.
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Why are these important exhibits not included in the main exhibition area and consigned to what is effectively a corridor used by people leaving the museum? If anyone can dispel my view that this is more than poor decision making – I would be pleased to hear it.

The 1912 Balance of Power in Central Europe

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This map was found in the 1912 files of the Directorate of Military Operations, a part of the War Office, and shows how Henry Wilson and his staff saw the struggle for overall power. Apart from the obvious colour coding which shows both the Central Powers and the Triple Entente allying against each other – it also illustrates the degree to which Britain was unprepared for war on a continental stage. The six division Expeditionary Force that was envisaged could do little other than play a subsidiary role next to the sixty-six French divisions that would line up along the Western Front.

Of far greater importance was the political significance of the BEF’s involvement which had been summed up in the following conversation between Wilson and Foch in 1909:

Wilson: “What would you say was the smallest British military force that would be of any practical assistance to you in the event of such a contest as we have been considering?”

Foch: “One single private soldier and we would take good care that he was killed.”