The use of the word 'silent' in the sense of 'retiring' or 'modest' with reference to a General of the Great War would normally be considered as an oxymoron: by definition Great War generals gained their promotion by self-aggrandisement and, usually, a fair dose of patronage. But for many years after the end of the Great War General Lord (Henry Sinclair) Horne of Stirkoke (hereafter HSH) was given this soubriquet. For it was believed he did not write his memoirs and that on his instructions his personal records were destroyed by his wife at the time of his death in1946. Indeed, earlier articles written on this web-site refer to this lack of personal documentation.
However, a recent book* has demonstrated that this reputation for 'silence' was not entirely accurate. True, compared with most of his comrade-officers-in-arms, he did not actively pursue publicity and public recognition during or after his service life. But HSH was not averse to a bit of self-promotion when he felt it was his due; in this he was helped by the fact that Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig had long been both his mentor and advocate. He also explained away his desire to receive the recognition he felt he deserved by maintaining he "only sought them for the sake of his wife" and not for his own sake. Presumably, therefore, he did not insist that his wife destroy all his personal documents. Or she disobeyed his instructions: she passed at least some of them to his daughters who, in turn, finally handed them over to the Imperial War Museum (IWM) in 1997, where his biographer, Don Farr, gained full access to them.
Nevertheless, it can be said that HSH did consistently maintain an unusually low profile, whilst greatly depending on his mentor Haig to support him through his career on the Western Front.
*THE SILENT GENERAL, Horne of the First Army. By Don Farr (2007), Helion & Company. ISBN 978-1-874622-99-4.
HSH was born on 19th February 1861 into the Scottish landed gentry at the family home in Caithness. As the fourth child, and third son, and with a military family background, his entry into the British Army in 1878, as a cadet at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, England, was an expected career choice. From the outset, HSH showed a particular interest in the Royal Artillery (RA) and he was commissioned into this Regiment in 1880. Henceforth, his career was closely associated with the Regiment.
Initially posted the Royal Garrison Artillery (RGA) at Woolwich, HSH moved to Portsmouth in 1882 and then, as adjutant, to the mounted branch at Weedon, Northamptonshire in 1883.
India: In 1887 he was posted to India where he served in various artillery units and progressed to the rank of Captain. He returned to the UK in 1896 to continue his service with the Royal Artillery. He married (Kate) in 1897.
South Africa: The outbreak of the Boer War in October 1899 catapulted HSH (now a Major) into the mobilisation of I Army Corps which was despatched to Capetown in November 1899. It arrived in December 1899.
It was as a mounted gunnery officer in the Cape that HSH first met Douglas Haig (then Lieutenant Colonel) who was to play such an important role in his career. Together they served in the relief of Kimberly, the capture of Bloemfontain, the relief of Wepener and the invasion of Transvaal. Further successes followed in artillery actions at Johannesburg, Pretoria, and Krugersdorp, along the Orange River and in Cape Colony.
Promoted to Brevet Lieutenant Colonel in 1901, HSH, finished the South African Campaign with a Mentioned-in-Despatches and Campaign Medals but was rather upset not to have received the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for what he considered was his rather good war record. However, The appreciation he earned from his superiors, Major General Sir John French and Lieutenant Colonel Douglas Haig, was to stand him good stead in the future.
Between the Wars.
Back in UK, HSH returned to barrack life with the Royal Field Artillery (RFA) in England (Commandant of the Weedon training unit) and Ireland (1905) as Commander XXXI Brigade, RFA, Dublin, with promotion to Brevet Colonel, and appointment to command VIII Brigade, Newbridge. Moving back to England in 1910 he became Staff Officer, (Colonel), Horse and Field Artillery, Aldershot.
In another great career step, on the 1st May 1912, HSH was appointed Brigadier General, Inspector of Artillery, (Royal Horse Artillery/ Royal Field Artillery.)
THE WESTERN FRONT, August 1914 to November 1915.
When war broke out in the early days of August 1914, HSH, like many of his comrades, felt well prepared to deal with what they were sure would be an intense mobile war of short duration; 'Home by Christmas' was the slogan quoted by many. Immediately, his mentor, Haig, now promoted to Lieutenant General, appointed HSH to his headquarters staff of I Corps.
Mons and the Retreat (a.k.a. the Retirement).
On 15th August 1914, HSH arrived in France with the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) comprising of a cavalry division and I & II Infantry Corps. In the role of Brigadier General Royal Artillery (BGRA), I Corps, he moved on 22nd August 1914 with the BEF into the Mons/Condé Canal area of Belgium to take up the BEF's pre-ordained position to the left of the French (Fifth) Army. The British were outnumbered by the Germans 3:1. The Battle of Mons (Flemish = Bergen) took place on 23rd August 1914. After a fierce infantry battle, in which the BEF's 2nd Corps played the primary role, the French Army abruptly withdrew and HSH joined in the famous British fighting retreat to the Marne whilst maintaining the role of a rearguard. In the process he did much to facilitate the retreat of the whole of Haig's I Corps. When the BEF made its stand with the French on the Marne, and began its offensive on 5th September 1914, HSH was firstly at I Corps HQ. But on the 10th September took over temporary command of 1st Division RA, leading it to engage the Germans at their new positions in the Chemin des Dames Sector.
His role in the retreat and the subsequent advance, over, HSH returned to I Corps HQ. From there Haig assigned him to the organisation of the liaison between the artillery and the increasingly effective Royal Flying Corps (RFC). A task which HSH took very seriously indeed as he clearly foresaw the value of such co-operation; particularly following the recent introduction of more effective radio communication between the air-borne artillery observers and the gunnery officers on the ground.
His success in this field, and the rear-guard actions during the Retreat from Mons, led in October 1914 to his promotion to Major General, his much awaited, and anticipated, 'Mention in Dispatches' and his creation as Companion of the Order of the Bath (CB).
First Battle of Ypres.
In October 1914, the French commander, Marshal Joseph Joffre, assigned British I Corps to the Ypres Sector (Flanders) in a campaign that became known as the First Battle of Ypres. HSH did not play any operational role but was obviously busily occupied in behind-the-lines operational activities.
In December 1914, HSH was appointed General Officer Commanding (GOC), Acting, 2nd Division, First Army and set about improving the conditions of his trench-works, particularly the water-logging problem.
As the year had turned from 1914 to 1915, it became clear that the belligerents on the Western Front were embracing quite different strategies. The invading Germans were content to hold their ground, usually dominating that held by the Allies, and their increasingly formidable defences, to allow the Allies to break themselves in their attempt to eject the Central Powers out of occupied French and Belgian territory.
To the contrary, the Allies' strategy was of one of seeking a quick breakthrough of the German defences at almost any cost; by the end of 1914 the French had already suffered a million casualties in pursuance of this aim. Whilst the original manpower of the BEF had been virtually eliminated by death, injury or exhaustion. Therefore, in 1915, the dominant question for the French, who still led the alliance, was exactly where should the blow(s) fall next.
Neuve Chapelle, Festubert and Aubers Ridge.
In February 1915, Joffre decided to launch offensives in Artois, Champagne and Lorraine, with the British playing a supporting role in Artois. However, current sources of new British military manpower were strictly limited to: volunteer Territorial units; the Indian Army; a contingent of Canadians and recycled Regular units from around the Empire. Lord Kitchener's New Armies, now nearly a million strong, were still under formation and training in the UK.
As acting commander 2nd Division, I Corps, HSH relocated on 1st January 1915 to the Béthune Sector and almost immediately was preferentially promoted by Haig to full commander responsible for the defence of Festubert, Givenchy and Cuinchy. In true form, he again immediately set about up-grading the water-logged trenches for the anticipated problems of winter and reducing the number of men exposed in the front-line to the minimum possible within the operational requirements. He first operation on the 6th January 1915 was to clear and hold a critical German strong point in the brick-stacks of Cuinchy, despite a strong German counter-attack.
Next, 2nd Division was included in Field Marshal Sir John French's 11th March 1915 initiative to deploy the 1st Army BEF to capture the village of Neuve Chapelle and to seize the strategically dominant feature called Aubers Ridge. In so doing, the British commander, French, wished to demonstrate to the French Army the willingness of the BEF to do their share of the fighting. Accordingly, 2nd Division's role was a diversionary attack north of Givenchy. Unfortunately, the preliminary artillery barrage failed to break up the barbed wire concentrations, and to harass the front-line trenches to the required extent, so eventually a retirement was called. Nevertheless, HSH planned two further mass frontal attacks on the same day. The first was repulsed, the second countermanded; 2nd Division had suffered over 600 casualties with no territorial gains. HSH felt that he had failed both technically and tactically, i.e. the artillery had failed to achieve its targets and the infantry had to pay the price. (This salutary experience prompted him to strongly urge the BEF commanders to undertake a radical reorganisation of the artillery.)
Nevertheless, French's Neuve Chapelle/Aubers Ridge operation was considered to be a success for the British: the salient had been significantly reduced, and Neuve Chapelle remained in British hands. It has also lessened the earlier doubts of the French about British military capabilities and commitment.
The next operation of 2nd Division was to support the mining and counter-mining teams of Major Norton-Griffiths, Royal Engineers, in the Neuve Chapelle Sector.
Meanwhile, HSH harboured suspicions about the possible use of toxic gas in the sector (following up on its experimental deployment by the Germans at Ypres) and considerable efforts were made by 2nd Division to produce crude gas masks.
Joffre's subsequent venture was an assault on Vimy Ridge in early May 1915. The BEF would launch another diversionary attack on Aubers Ridge by First Army with 2nd Division acting as a reserve to follow-up on any breakthrough. The attack began on 9th May 1915. The planned intervention that night by 2nd Division was called off at the last minute. After several days of costly fighting, the offensive withered away with no territorial gain at all and British casualties of 12,000; from the outset there was a shortage of ammunition. Nevertheless, the French offensive still required support, and, in a further assault by First Army, HSH's 2nd Division was committed to a night attack (the BEF's first) on 15th May 1915. The objective was La Ferme Cour d'Avoué. After a long bombardment the attack went in with mixed results and further assaults followed. After six days of intensive fighting, 2nd Division was withdrawn and placed in reserve. The Battles of Aubers Ridge/Festubert continued to wind down until 27th May with little territorial gain (1,000 yards) and high British casualties: 2nd Division had lost over 5,000 men. HSH's comment (in part) was "Casualties very heavy. One must not allow oneself to think about them, but must accept it is for God and country." Aubers Ridge remained in German hands until October 1918.
After this protracted battle 2nd Division enjoyed, with the rest of the BEF, a relatively quite period of several months all the while maintaining an aggressive stance. Large numbers of replacements filled the now depleted ranks.
Joffre's next objective was the Champagne Sector and Vimy Ridge, east of Bethune assigning to the British the frontage between La Bassée Canal and the town of Lens. It included the mining town of Loos and the British offensive became known as the Battle of Loos. (Earlier reservations by the BEF about the suitability of the terrain were over-ruled by the British Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener.) HSH's 2nd Division Sector, along with General Sir Herbert Gough's 3rd Division, covered the northern third of the Front – about four miles. During the preparations for the attack Haig authorised the first British use of toxic gas. Accordingly, 2nd Division received pressure cylinders of chlorine gas which, backed by a smoke screen, were to be used against the German trenches. The use of gas was justified by the anticipated British deficiencies in artillery cover and as a retaliatory measure for the German gas attack at 2nd Ypres in April 1915.
On 27th September 1915, 2nd Division released their some of their cylinders of gas north and south of the Bassée Canal but it moved very slowly giving the Germans ample time to take protective measures. South of the canal the wind was even less favourable and the gas release was quickly curtailed. However, many of the forward British troops were badly affected by the gas and retired to their own trenches. A second attack was ordered by HSH for 0830hrs but this was rescinded after objections by two of the three Brigade commanders and all except a small minority of the two brigades returned to their trenches.
HSH subsequently faced severe criticism about his decision to use gas in the less than perfect climatic conditions at Loos, although his decision to turn off the gas when problems became apparent was favourably recognised.
On Day Two, 2nd Division was ordered to stand firm and detach two battalions to support 7th Division (Lieutenant Colonel B C M Carter) which moved off next morning to join the what was now called Carter's Force. However, after the original objective of Cité St. Elie was aborted, the detachment joined in the battle for the Quarries south west of the Cité.
Apart from relatively minor and unsuccessful involvement on 1st and 13th October 1915, the Battle of Loos was over for 2nd Division. It had suffered 3,400 casualties of whom nearly half were killed or missing.
Despite the limited successes of HSH's 2nd Division, and the inevitable recriminations that followed, the departure of Field Marshal French as commander of the BEF, and his replacement on 19th December 1915 by General Sir Douglas Haig, raised the expectations of HSH for future promotion and preferment. But by this time HSH was already away from the Western Front summoned by Kitchener in November 1915 to participate in an extraordinary mission. This, HSH ultimately discovered, was to determine whether there should be an Allied evacuation from the Gallipoli Peninsular.
GALLIPOLI AND EGYPT.
To HSH's astonishment, Kitchener appointed him to be his Chief Military Adviser for the duration of his personal visit to the Dardanelles Front. They left by sea on 7th November 1915, and, after a stop-over at Mudros (Moudhros) on the Greek island of Lemnos (Limnos) for a briefing, left the next day for a tour of the Gallipoli beach-heads at Cape Helles and ANZAC Cove. Whilst the local commanders were divided on the evacuation issue, the initial impression of Kitchener was that it should be partial with the Cape Helles beachheads retained. Ultimately the War Office intervened deciding that there should be a total withdrawal from the Gallipoli Peninsular and Lieutenant General William Birdwood was appointed as commander of the withdrawal procedure. Kitchener also told Horne he would be sent to Egypt to assist in the defence of the Suez Canal against possible attack by the Ottoman Army. During his mission Kitchener also visited Salonika and met the Greek King in Athens.
Kitchener departed for the UK on 25th November 1915, whilst HSH travelled a little earlier to Alexandria, Egypt, arriving at their respective destinations on the same date.
HSH pursued his mission with his usual zeal and attention to detail. Finally, he prepared a detailed report recommending the movement of the defence line to the eastern bank of the canal and radical improvement of the railway connections. Also, he clearly set out the requirements for manpower (the Canal Defence Force), organisation and materiél to establish a practical and effective defence scheme with bases at Alexandria, Cairo, Camp El Warden and three Corps HQs at Ismailia, Port Said and Suez. After a brief visit to the UK he was appointed to command the newly formed XV Corps at Port Said and arrived there on 13th January 1916. However, command on the Western Front still beckoned as strong as ever, which another Mention in Dispatches did little to attenuate: he was clearly expecting something more grandiose after all his efforts.
THE WESTERN FRONT, April 1916 to November 1918.
The long anticipated recall came to the Western Front came on 11th April 1916.
He arrived at Marseilles on 21st April 1916 and was re-appointed to command XV Corps (recently transferred from the Canal Zone, Egypt).
The Battle of the Somme.
Antedating HSH's return to the Western Front in April 1916, the strategy for 1916 had been discussed at a 6th December 1915 meeting of the Allies (British, French, Italian and Russian) in Chantilly, France. It was decided that the major offensive would be a joint British and French attack at the end of June 1916 on a 19 miles (30km) wide front in the Somme Sector of Picardy in northern France. The French were to provide the majority of the troops and artillery – 42 French divisions (356 heavy guns). But as was often the case on the Western Front, events took charge: General Erich von Falkenhayn ordered the German Fifth Army to launch a massive onslaught in the Verdun Sector on 21st February 1916. Not necessarily for a territorial breakthrough, but rather an attrition of French military strength and morale. Immediately French priorities changed to face this serious challenge. The British would have to attack on the Somme with the participation of only 22 French divisions. Moreover, the offensive would be principally a diversionary move to release the pressure on the French at Verdun; at least it would be in the eyes of the French – both the commander of the BEF and the commander Fourth Army, General Sir Henry S. Rawlinson still had other wider ambitions including the much vaunted British 'Breakthrough'. In March 1916, the British took over the majority of the French Sector of what was to be the Somme battlefield, leaving the French Sixth Army with a limited frontage mainly east of the Somme River.
On Day 1, the British had a frontage of 12.5 miles (20km), with 11 divisions for the initial attack and the French 6.5 miles (10km) and five divisions. For the first time the British component for an offensive included large numbers of men of Kitchener's New Army (ultimately 60% of the total British strength of 120,000).
When HSH reported to British Fourth Army HQ at Amiens, he was appointed to command his old XV Corps from Egypt, which was now being reconstituted for the Western Front. Again, Haig's hand was evident in this appointment. HSH was also fortuitous in having in his command an outstanding gunner, Brigadier General Ernest W. Alexander, VC, with whom he would have a very successful relationship in the deployment and co-ordination of his artillery.
Fricourt and Mametz: Rawlinson assigned HSH's XV Corps (Divisions 7th, 17th [New Army] and 21st [New Army]) to a 1,200 yard frontage facing the villages of Fricourt and Mametz, and taking in the Fricourt and Mametz Woods and the Fricourt salient. As usual in making his detailed battle plans, HSH was highly active in surveying his area of operations and consulting with his neighbour commanders. Situated in the highly fortified salient in the German line, the villages of Fricort and its neighbour, Mametz, presented serious problems for a frontal attack. Accordingly, HSH planned a two-pronged attack; from the east and north-east. The first assault, at Zero Hour (0730hrs) on 1st July 1916, would be carried out by 7th Division on Mametz Village. On its successful completion, 21st Division with a detachment from 17th Division, would attack north of the village of Fricourt. Both prongs would then advance northwards to Bottom Wood, 1,000 yards due north of Mametz Wood. The rest of 17th Division would be in reserve. A deception operation using chlorine gas was also included in the plan.
As was to be expected, HSH's plans for his artillery coverage were equally meticulous and contained the elements of 'drift' that would subsequently come to be known as a 'creeping barrage', with 50yard 'lifts' of the guns at a frequency of a minute. He had also planned for three mines to be excavated in a fortified area called the Tambour near the western outskirts of Fricourt Village. It was hoped that the spoil ejected from these explosions would provide cover against German enfilading machine gun and rifle fire. Smaller mines had been located in other areas of the front-line.
The series of events of the attack were: 0625hrs, a preliminary barrage intensifying on specific targets; 0715hrs, ten minutes duration of chlorine gas to wrongly indicate an attack in the centre of the line; 0722hrs, a heavy bombardment with Stokes mortars; 0726hrs, the gas replaced by a smoke-screen; 0728hrs, the donation of the three Tambour mines, totalling 50,000lbs of ammonal high explosive; and 0730hrs, the 7th Division to go over the top.
On going over the top, 7th Division immediately ran into machine gun fire from Mametz cemetery (which took time and many casualties to eliminate) and both Fricourt and Mametz villages offered strong resistance. But by 1530hrs Mamatz village was held by the division and by dusk much of the surrounding trench-works was also secured. Overall, the German position seemed to have been considerably weakened.
The 21st Division, plus its detachment, joined the advance at 1430hrs despite the reality that not all HSH's preconditions had been met. It faced heavy resistance and there were many casualties: the Tambour mines had not been as effective as has been hoped and the 10th Battalion West Yorkshire Regiment suffered 90% casualties. To add to the misfortune a company of 7th Battalion Green Howards advanced without authorisation and were immediately wiped out by machine gun fire. However, as at Mametz Village, the German's hold in the Fricourt area was considerably weakened.
Unfortunately, the limited successes of the day were not further exploited as a request from commanders in the van for approval to push on into Fricourt village was denied by HSH. It is unclear why HSH did not seize this opportunity: certainly later official reports queried this hesitation.
Late at night on 1st July, the commander of 4th Army made exactly this order and XV Corps was instructed to capture both Fricourt village and Fricourt Wood on the morrow and to push on towards Contalmaison and Mametz Wood. To facilitate this, 17th Division was to be brought into action in co-ordination with 7th Division.
In the event the Germans vacated Fricourt village overnight and 7th Division moved in unopposed to be joined belatedly by 17th Division by mid-day on 2nd July 1916. Fricourt Wood was also quickly occupied. But at the end of the day the original final objective of Bottom Wood still evaded them as did Mametz Wood itself, although other adjacent northern German defences were overcome.
At this point HSH is reported as congratulating himself on his casualties being "not as great as was expected." Final tallies showed them to be nearly 9,000 for XV Corps, with 21st Division alone suffering over 4,000. At best a bit of self-delusion by HSH.
Accordingly, the next task was for XV Corps to capture the outlying defences and then Mametz Wood itself; the second largest wood on the 1916 Somme battlefield.
On 3rd July 1916, XV Corps began by clearing the approaches to Mametz Wood, and in the late afternoon a patrol entering Mametz Wood found it unoccupied. Once again HSH failed to take the opportunity and limited his action to the capture the trenches called Strip, Quadrangle and Wood that guarded the southern and western entrances to Mametz Wood. The delay allowed the Germans to reoccupy Mametz Wood and the approach trenches. Once again the official records queried HSH's hesitation. He in turn blamed 17th Division for its lack of determination. Perhaps in contrition, HSH launched another attack at midnight, 4th July 1916, by elements of 7th and 17th Divisions on the approaches to Mametz Wood. After a delay, caused by heavy rain, the early morning attack only achieved a mixed success. At this point, 7th Division was relieved by 38th (Welsh) Division, and a whole new saga over Mametz Wood began.
Taking on board the 38th Division, HSH planned a new attack at 0200hrs on 5th July 1916. 17th Division would attack Mametz Wood from the West and 38th Division from the East (i.e. the part known as the Hammerhead) at 0800hrs.
As usual, events made a mess of the schedule and this interfered with the artillery support. The attack rapidly bogged down and further artillery support was requested which HSH finally approved. A planned further attack by both 17th and 38th Divisions at 2000hrs was reduced to a limited attack by 17th whilst 38th retired with 400 casualties. In the end, the attack by 17th Division also failed to make any progress and the day ended in failure for XV Corps.
Haig was now getting impatient at the lack of progress in this sector. When yet another proposed attack on Strip Trench on 7th July 1916 failed to materialise, in HSH's mind much of the procrastination appeared to be due to the lack of resolution of the commanding officer 38th Division, Major General Ivor Philipps – a political appointee of the War Minister, Lloyd-George. A concerned HSH visited the general and ordered a new attack on 9th July. Philipps considered the attack was impossible in the time frame available to him. HSH summoned Philipps to his HQ and promptly sacked him: Major General Harold E. Watts was appointed as his replacement.
HSH was also losing patience with another of his divisional commanders – Major General Thomas D. Pilcher, 17th (Northern) Division - and HSH continued to pressure him into taking more vigorous action. A new attack on the key Quadrangle Support Trench was launched on 9th July, but little progress was made at a cost of over 200 casualties.
On 10th July 1916, it was again 38th Division's turn to attack Mametz Wood, with Watts's troops in the van. The prelude to the attack was an early version of a 'creeping barrage'. A 45 minute preliminary barrage followed by a smoke screen and 50 yard artillery 'lifts' a minute and then, at one hour intervals, a repeat on the second on the third objectives.
Progress was made except at The Hammerhead where the Welsh hung on desperately harassed in their flanks by German infiltrators. Meanwhile, 17th Division struggled on clearing the German support trenches whilst 23rd Division finally reached its northern objective at Contalmaison.
Major General Pilcher was finally sacked by HSH on 11th July 1916.
The 38th Division was relieved on the morning of 12th July by 21st Division. In less than a week 38th Division had lost 4,000 men, but their reputation had suffered a reverse in Mametz Wood and its environs that is remembered to this day. Exactly how much of this 'failure' in performance was due to the over-intervention of HSH , or to his relative inexperience, remains open to debate.
On 12th July 1916, Mametz Wood finally fell to 21st Division after the Germans withdrew from it.
N.B. The 38th (Welsh) Division Memorial – a Red Welsh Dragon - erected in 1987 by the initiative of the South Wales Branch of the Western Front Association - overlooks the Hammerhead section of Mametz Wood. It forms an unofficial focus for Welsh remembrance on the Western Front and is reportedly one its most visited memorials.
Bazentin Ridge: After much debate and some changes by Haig and Rawlinson, the next objective for HSH's XV Corps was chosen; four miles (six km) of the Germans' highly fortified Second Line along Bazentin Ridge.
The preliminary barrage began before the objectives were agreed upon, causing a delay until 14th July 1916, when XV (7th and 21st Divisions) and XIII (3rd and 9th Divisions), attacked in concert at 0325 hours. Using the new technique of a 'creeping barrage', with high explosive shells and time-delay fuses, the two corps attacked Bezantin-le-Grand village and Bazentin-le-Petit Wood.
The attack by XV Corps went well, both villages and their adjacent woods were captured and largely held against German counter-attacks. XIII Corps did less well and did not reach all of the second objective – part of Longueval village and Delville Wood. This added a note of caution in the plans to storm an unoccupied High Wood and, once again, a great tactical opportunity was lost through vacillation. One which would cost Fourth Army dearly in the weeks ahead.
This caution delayed the advance of the 2nd Indian Cavalry Division (XIII Corps) on High Wood and allowed the Germans to make a move into the northern part of the wood based on their Switch Trench. When elements of the Secundabad Cavalry Brigade did move on High Wood in the late afternoon of the 14th July, it was met with firstly sporadic rifle fire, and then machine guns, as it charged along the valley between Delville and High Wood, felling the Germans in its path who were caught in the open. As night fell, the infantry were still only in the possession of the southern half of the wood and under heavy enemy fire from an increasingly resourced German defence to the north. The cavalry, unable to penetrate deeply into the Wood, were marooned on its south-eastern fringes and subsequently withdrew that night with only light losses. But, so far in this engagement XV Corps had already lost almost 5,000 men.
On 15th July 1916, a new attempt was made by XV and XIII Corps to clear an increasingly fortified High Wood. It failed and HSH was obliged to withdraw all his troops from the wood overnight. Meanwhile, what was to be the virtual destruction of the South African Brigade had begun in the depths of Delville Wood.
HSH decided to use artillery to do the job on High Wood. But Rawlinson insisted that the capture of High Wood should receive the highest immediate priority as part of a more general attack across the Ridge. This began on 20th July 1916 and, despite recovering the whole wood at one point, by nightfall intensive German artillery had driven XV Corps out.
Decisions by Fourth Army HQ brought about the realignment of Corps areas and changes to units assigned to them. XV Corps gained responsibility for Longueval, but ceded Bazentin-le-Petit. The strength of XV Corps now comprised 5th, 7th, 33rd and 51st (Highland) Divisions.
A new attack on 23rd July 1916 on Longueval, High Wood and the German Switch Line Trench failed totally. The 5th Division were badly mauled by machine guns located in the Wood and driven back, whilst the 51st were similarly repulsed in their attempts on the Wood and the Switch Line Trench. The German hold on High Wood was becoming increasingly stronger.
But Fourth Army HQ was not outwardly fazed by these set-backs. It insisted HSH make another attack on 27th July on the same objectives in co-ordination with XIII Corps. XV Corps' 5th Division would attack Longueval and the western and eastern parts of High Wood, whilst XIII Corps' 2nd Division would attack Delville Wood. A one-hour bombardment would precede the attack and a creeping barrage would follow where appropriate.
The bombardment was highly successful in both attacks and considerable territorial gains were made. However, strong German counter attacks on the 28th July brought the advance to a halt short of the completion of all the objectives. A renewal of the attack on the 29th by XV Corps' 51st Division still left High Wood largely in German hands, as was Longueval and Delville Wood.
Yet another assault on 30th July by 5th Division and 51st Division over the same ground was equally unproductive. After objections by both divisional commanders HSH was obliged to relieve 5th Division with the17th and postpone any further action by the 51st.
At this juncture there was a lapse in the assaults by XV Corps until 18th August 1916 when HSH ordered an enveloping attack on his new area of responsibility, Delville Wood, with some success. Attacks elsewhere, including the notorious Wood Lane area by 33rd Division, were disappointing despite the novel use of flame-throwers and flaming oil cans. HSH continued with these efforts but Delville Wood only finally fell on 27th August 1916 to an attack, preceded with a heavy artillery bombardment, by HSH's new 14th (Light) Division. Even then, a furious German counter attack on 31st August recaptured a part of the Wood and its environs despite further British attempts to regain loss territory.
The German's hold, if tenuous, on parts of High Wood continued and HSH's Corps continued to battle there whilst, on 3rd September, widening the assault to include the village of Ginchy. Several divisional reliefs later, it was XIV Corps who finally cleared the village whilst the XV battled on in and around Delville Wood.
Even as HSH'S troops continued to battle with a highly determined German resistance in and around the Wood, plans were being drawn up by Rawlinson and Haig for a further 'push' two miles to the East, and in this battle the first tanks would be deployed.
Flers and Gueuedecourt: Orders for the new attack were made on 11th September 1916. XV Corps' principle objectives were the villages of Flers and Gueudecourt and the defences around them. Hopefully, this would lead to the opening up of the German lines and permit elements of the 12,000 strong British cavalry to push forward to make Haig's all important 'Breakthough'.
For the first time tanks would be used in concert to assist the infantry in breaking through the concentrations of barbed-wire and by attacking strong-points; 18 tanks were assigned to XV Corps. The human resources made available for this operation were: 14th (Light) Division; 41st (New Army) Division and the New Zealand Division.
But HSH decided that the first objective of XV Corps would be to clear the Delville Wood area of the Germans, and he allotted two of his assigned tanks to this operation.
Accordingly, starting 50 minutes before the launch of the main operation, a successful subsidiary attack, with the one serviceable tank, cleared the Germans from the Delville Wood area. The tank was destroyed in the process .
As scheduled, the main assault began at 0600hrs on 15th September 1916. A creeping barrage was widely used in the operation. XV Corps made good progress clearing Flers village and its environs but lost many of their other tanks in the process. The main advance was called to a halt still short of the day's final objective, Gueudecourt Village, with HRH promising the commanders of 14th and 41st Divisions artillery support before they would be further committed. The few remaining tanks were withdrawn to their lines to prepare for a resumption of the attack on the morrow.
Renewed operations in the 16th September were largely ineffective because of the lack of adequate tank and artillery support, with 41st Division performing well below par. As usual, the New Zealanders put up a spirited show and were only stymied in their advance by a lack of support on their flank. All the remaining tanks were put out of action by enemy action or breakdown/ditching. More seriously, the key element of surprise created by the appearance of the tanks had been lost for little advantage.
Plans for further follow-up attacks were postponed, and the next day 21st and 55th Divisions relieved 14th and 41st Divisions. Rain then caused further postponements until 25th September. This time 21st and 55th Division would attack Gueudecourt and its defences. Meanwhile, the usual local actions continued as bitterly as ever. Once again, operational difficulties were encountered, but on the morning of 26th September, Geuedecourt village fell; a single tank playing a highly significant role in this success. Later in the day, the 55th Division and the New Zealanders were successful in mopping-up operations and, finally, by nightfall, the objectives of XV Corps had been met. Elsewhere on the Somme, there were other significant successes for 4th Army with the capture of important strong points such as Thiepval Ridge, Combles and Courcellette villages and the Zollern Redoubt.
PROMOTION TO ARMY COMMANDER.
For HSH, further personal advancement during what became to be known as the First Battle of the Somme came quite unexpectedly through promotion from Corps commander to General Officer Commanding First Army, succeeding General Sir Charles Monroe. This unanticipated development came about because, unusually, Haig's original recommendation for this post, Lieutenant General Sir Richard C. B. Haking, was not accepted by the War Office in London, and Haig was requested to choose from four other alternatives, including HSH.
Once again, Haig chose his protégé and HSH was duly promoted on 20th August 1916. When HSH left XV Corps on 26th September 1916 to take up his new post on the 30th; there was still almost two months left of the Somme Offensive to run before it came to a shuddering halt in the early snows of November 1918.
In all fairness, it is difficult to see how Haig justified his choice of HSH when there were other more seasoned Corps commanders on the list, i.e. Generals Sir Frederick R. Lambart (10th Earl of Cavan) XIV Corps, Sir William R. Birdwood, GOC Australia Corps and Sir Julian H. G. Byng, COC Canadian Corps. (Lambart was subsequently considered by some to have been the best British commander on the Western Front). Moreover, HSH's 80 days of operational duty in the post of commander XV Corps had hardly outshone that of his peers, and his casualty figures were certainly no better overall. Perhaps Haig saw in the dedicated artillery-man Horne promises of a willingness to evolve, adapt and deploy new methods and technologies that would provide the 'Breakthrough' that he (Haig) so ardently sought.
Further reward also came in September 1916 when HSH was created Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath (KCB).
FIRST ARMY, September 1916 to November 1918.
Overnight, HSH's command had jumped from one Corps (XV) to three (I, IV and XI Corps) totalling 12 divisions. (The Canadian Corps, rotated from the Somme, would replace IV Corps in October 1916.) Haig immediately informed HSH that Vimy Ridge would be First Army's next objective.
HSH's HQ was located in the Béthune Sector. On 9th October 1916, he took the opportunity of a brief interlude in the fighting to be invested with the KCB (Knight Commander of the Bath) by the King, finally achieving this long sought after, and much desired, distinction. HSH was also gazetted that month as a full temporary General.
The Battle of Vimy Ridge.
Vimy Ridge was one of the most sought after strategic and tactical geographical features on the Western Front. It overlooked the key provincial town of Arras and the surrounding Douai Plain. Hence, from the earliest days of the war, it was one of the most fought over locations, being held in turn by the Germans and the French with enormous numbers of casualties being sustained in the various campaigns for its control over the years 1914 and 1915. In March 1916 the French handed jurisdiction for the Vimy Ridge sector to the BEF. Coincidentally, it was high on both Joffre's and Haig's list of possible campaign contenders for 1917.
However, the new British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, wished to keep Haig firmly subordinated under French command. This coterie now included the French artillery man General Robert G. Nivelle whose star was in the ascendancy after his success at resolving the dire situation at Verdun.
The Neville Plan was for a huge attack (28 French divisions) in the Chemin des Dames Sector. The BEF's First, Third and Fifth Armies would provide support in the Arras and Cambrai Sectors. First Army would take Vimy Ridge. The Canadian Corps commanded by British General Sir Julian Byng would be in the van. Third Army would drive towards Cambrai and Fifth Bullecourt and the Hindenburg Line. The British would call their component of Nivelle's grand plan, The Battle of Arras. The main British attack would precede the French offensive of 16th April 1917 by a week.
On 1st January 1917, as the two Allies made the final plans for the assault on Vimy Ridge, HSH was informed of his promotion to Lieutenant General (Substantive). Several important and positive changes of personnel also took place in his HQ staff.
The planning for the Vimy Ridge offensive was prolonged and careful with Byng very much at the centre of things with his Canadians, with whom he had an excellent rapport. This was despite their awful losses during their time on the Somme (17,000 casualties) whilst serving with General Gough's Reserve Army. From early on in the year the Canadian's had undertaken aggressive harrying of the German defences around Vimy Ridge by trench raids. They also actively continued the 1916 mining activities of the British and begun to dig the sophisticated access subways to facilitate the infiltration of their front-line troops close to the German lines. Plasticine models of the battlefield were also made to brief officers, NCOs and the men and so make the battle plan clear to all ranks. Large resources of artillery and munitions were built up giving a gun density of one heavy artillery piece per 10 yards of front and a field piece for every 20 yards; multiples of the guns that were available on the Somme. Shells were also fused with the much more effective '106' fuse. The location of around 80% of the German batteries was established in advance by aerial observation, 'flash spotting' and sound location and the British guns registered on them without the need for ranging shots.
During March 1917, HSH's HQ finalised Byng's Vimy Ridge Operational Plan deploying all the four Canadian divisions, plus a reserve formed by the British 5th Division, and the date for the attack was set as 9th April 1917. There would be two parts to the attack: the Southern Operation to capture the main part of the Ridge via four objectives - designated as coloured lines on the Operational Map – and, once the Southern Operation was a success, the Northern Operation to seize the high point stronghold called The Pimple, along with a small copse called the Bois en Hache'.
At 0530hrs on 9th April 1917, the 1,000-gun barrage began; it included a 'creeping' component. A total of 30,000 Canadian troops, many of whom were concealed in the subways debouching within 100 yards of the German lines, advanced in a snowstorm. Within an hour, the first objectives of 1st, 2nd and 3rd Divisions had been met and in a further 30 minutes the second objective fell. Before noon, all four objectives of these divisions had been achieved. However, 4th Division had problems taking their objective – Hill 145, the highest point on the Ridge - and it wasn't until the next day (10th April) that this vital high point was captured. All that was left was The Pimple and the Bois en Hache.
A delayed attack on the Pimple was made on 12th April 1917 at 0500hrs, and within an hour it was in Canadian hands whilst the British captured the Bois en Hache.
This was an extraordinary coup for the Canadians, along with the British support troops and artillery, and also, by reflected glory, Byng and Horne, In less than a week the notorious Vimy Ridge and its environs had been cleared of Germans and retained in Allied hands. This gave and enormous boost to the morale of the Allies both on the Western and Home Fronts and provided the future backbone of the British defence in the catastrophic months later on in the War. However, the Canadian casualty list at Vimy was a heavy one: nearly 11,000 (10 %) with around 3,600 killed (3.6%). Four VCs were awarded to the Canadians.
Unfortunately, the later, but integral, French Nivelle Offensive on the Chemin des Dames Sector turned out to be a costly disaster and far from the original promises of assured success on an unprecedented scale. This failure not only led to the disgrace and eventual exile to North Africa of its author, Nivelle, but most French commentators consider Nivelle's failure in command here to be the genesis of the French Military Mutiny in 1917. And, effectively, the end of France's domination of
the Allied effort in the war on the Western Front..
HSH, having enjoyed his moment of glory, reflected or otherwise, was literally brought down to earth on 15th April 1917 when his horse slipped whilst negotiating a corduroy (wooden log) road in the Vimy area. The horse fell heavily on HSH, breaking his leg. Whilst not entirely out of action, HSH spent several weeks on crutches and in some discomfort. Time for reflection, no doubt.
Lens and Hill 70.
The unanticipated extension of the fighting, made necessary by the failure of the Neville Offensive and the consequent mutiny by many units of the French Army, had drawn First Army into what eventually on the 23rd April 1917 became the Second Battle of Arras. As part of the tripartite British Army operations HSH pushed his troops towards Lens and ultimately met the Germans' defences on the 'Oppy Line' (named after a nearby village) which became First Army's objective in support of Third Army. In the event, a delayed attack by First Army along both sides of the Souchez River only produced partial success and further attacks were cancelled.
On the 3rd May 1917, another tripartite-army early morning attack was launched in their respective sectors. First Army's objectives of the group of villages around Oppy were attacked without significant success and, as the troops showed increasing weariness and depletion in numbers, operations came to a virtual halt by early May. Haig had other more important fish to fry and other priorities for his reserves to spare any reinforcements for First Army. However, he insisted that the enemy be kept continually engaged. Accordingly, HSH launched new attacks aimed at the town of Lens in which his Canadian troops played a principal role leading up to the British attacks on Messines Ridges that began on 7th July 1917 and which represented Haig's major offensive for 1917.
In the following months, First Army faced two basic challenges. The first was the arrival in May 1917 of a detachment – eventually two divisions strong – of untried Portuguese troops. The second was that Byng was transferred to lead Fifth Army and his post was given to a Canadian national, Major General Sir Arthur W. Currie of the 1st Canadian Division; now promoted to Lieutenant General. Currie, at first sight, seemed an unconventional soldier. He was overweight, a non-professional pre-war militia soldier, moustache-less and notoriously profane, even for a soldier. He also bore the air of scandal with him concerning pre-war dealings with military finance in Canada. However, since the first German gas attack in 1915 on the Canadians, he had consistently performed well and was destined to continue to do so. To a conservative, old school soldier of the British Empire like HSH, both of these changes must have taken some getting used to.
During late June/July 1917, HSH continued with this supporting role in the Lens Sector, even though his heavy guns were wearing out and his manpower was getting even more tired and depleted. HSH also decided to attack the notorious strong-point called Hill 70 with 1st and 2nd Canadian Corps.
But although the attack on Hill 70 was authorised on 11th July 1917, mainly due to bad weather it did not take place until 0435hrs on the 30th when a hail of explosive shells and a curtain of heavy smoke presaged the assault. Within 90 minutes all the objectives, except the reverse slope of the Hill, had fallen to the Canadians Corps under the leadership of General Currie. This last objective caused the Canadians heavy casualties (5,500) as the Germans counter-attacked repeatedly; 18 such attacks were recorded. But after four days the Germans were finally repulsed from the Hill. German losses were also high with an unusually high number of prisoners (1,200) being taken.
The Canadians then went on to attack the coal mining town of Lens on 21st August 1917, in their usual no-holds barred fashion, but with less success. After a further four days of intense fighting, several strong points continued to resist; indeed, a number of these remained in German hands until shortly before the Armistice in November 1918. Nonetheless, high regard for the military prowess of the Canadians was universally declared at all levels of the BEF and the military establishment, including the German. Obviously, HSH was highly pleased with the achievements of these exceptional troops under his command.
In early September 1917, HSH presented Haig with a plan for how the hiatus at Lens might be resolved. A sympathetic Haig promised him new heavy mortars and some howitzers to up-grade his batteries from four to six guns, plus 70 new tanks. But it was to no avail. HSH's Canadians martial qualities were also desperately needed by Second Army (Plumer) to resolve the much greater hiatus in the on-going 3rd Ypres Offensive (Passchendaele). And when they did return to HSH's command in November 1917, having suffered 15,000 casualties, it was too late to revive the Lens operation.
The German Spring Offensive.
The big battles of 1916 and 1917 had wrung the BEF dry and, in the absence of sufficient new drafts of replacements, in January/February 1918 HSH, like his fellow Army commanders on the Western Front, was forced by a War Office edict to re-organise his British troops to nine battalions per division rather than the standard twelve of the British Army. The Canadians were an exception as they still had, just, a sufficient flow of replacements to maintain their original formations of 12 battalions.
To add to his worries, HSH was convinced by current speculation that the freeing up of a million war-experienced German troops on the Eastern Front, as a result of Russia's military collapse, would enable Germany to use these men in an offensive in the West before the long-promised American horde could change the balance of power irreversibly.
HSH's reaction to these bad portents was to beef up his defences and destroy public facilities, such as roads and bridges that might be useful to the attacking Germans.
However, HSH's original concerns about the reliability of the Portuguese divisions in First Army, that were located along a six-mile front in the Neuve Chapelle Sector, had been confirmed by their lax behaviour in and out of the line, and he made this clear to Haig. Haig was sympathetic, but was unable to help due to the current shortage of British troop replacements. Moreover, by March 1918, Allied intelligence reports suggested that the expected German Offensive was becoming less likely.
It was, therefore, an unpleasant surprise to some senior BEF officers, when the Germans massive offensive – Operation Michael – struck the British Third and Fifth Armies on 21st March 1918. First Army, located in the Armentières/Gavrelle Sectors, covering Vimy Ridge, was not immediately involved but, on 26th March, Haig ordered that most of HSH's Canadians should move to support Third Army so as to be available if and when they were required on this Front. Excluding these three Canadian divisions and including the two Portuguese, HSH had 11 divisions at his disposal and 1,450 artillery guns/howitzers.
Meanwhile, on 26th March 1918, the Allies decided at a meeting in Doullens to appoint the French Marshal Ferdinand Foch as co-ordinator of the Allies' war plans and, shortly after, war strategy too. In effect, he became Supreme Allied Commander.
On 28th March 1918, First Army's XIII Corps (56th and 3rd Canadian Divisions) made contact with seven divisions of the German 17th Army when the follow-up offensive - Operation Mars - was launched along the River Scarpe towards Arras.
HSH's perceptive planning allowed him to largely withdraw from his Front Lines and consolidate in the fortified Forward Zone. After intense fighting and inflicting many casualties on the German storm troops, XIII Corps withdrew further into the Battle Zone and there they successfully held the German advance bringing the northern part of the Mars Offensive to a premature halt. To what extent this reflected HSH's clear understanding of the new concept of 'defence in depth', as deployed by the Germans in 1917, is unclear. Certainly, not all of his senior BEF colleagues had got a clear gasp of all its nuances it at this stage in the War, or chose to ignore them. In anticipation of further attacks in this sector, Haig transferred 57th Division to HSH's jurisdiction. This enabled HSH to withdraw most of the Portuguese 1st Division from the line on 5th April 1918.
April 9th brought the next move – Operation Georgette - by the Germans against First Army with the objective of a breakthrough to the British communication centre at Hazebrouck. And, indeed, it was, as had been feared, aimed mainly against the Portuguese positions. The attack was presaged by a heavy four and a half-hour bombardment that included phosgene gas (a compound of chlorine and carbon monoxide first used by the Germans in December 1915 at Ypres). The gas was aided by a persistent mist. Consequently, the German assault troops met only sporadic opposition from the Portuguese, who had mainly fled to the rear during the Preparatory Barrage. This left the British Battle Zone in some disarray, with the adjacent British units trying to fill the breaches left by the fleeing Portuguese. Fortunately, 55th (West Lancashire) Division, recently transferred to First Army, were located in the La Bassée Canal/Givenchy/Festubert Sector, adjacent to the Portuguese position, and were able to take some of the strain, as were 40th and 34th Divisions. The 55th, particularly, and the new divisions gave a good account of themselves and managed to hold their line and this slowed the German advance generally. Although no additional help was forthcoming from the French, Plumer of Second Army did send three Brigades. Henceforth, continuous pressure by the Germans continued to stretch and extend the British front line into a 30 mile crescent, but they were unable to create the desired break in the cohesion of First and Second Army.
In the northern part of their frontage First Army's 40th Division continued to hold on after an initial retreat.
On 10th April 1918, Foch relented and provided Haig with additional troops. That in turn meant more British and Australian troops could be made available to First Army.
At this point Haig made his famous 'Backs to the wall' speech. This clearly indicated the dangerous situation that he believed the BEF faced at that time and, in particular the vulnerability of HSH's First Army and Plumer's Second Army.
The heavy attacks on First Army continued on 11th April, with further withdrawals, but with the 55th Division continuing to be steadfast even taking the offensive on 12 April. Meanwhile, concern about Hazebrouck grew despite the arrival of the Australians to take a blocking position against a German advance.
On 12th April, while HSH had already sensed that the German juggernaut was beginning to falter, he received an order from Haig to create, with Plumer, an 'At all costs' defence line in the Kemmel/Nieppe Sectors. On 13th HSH issued an order to his troops expressing his confidence in them.
After three days of relatively light fighting the Germans launched another furious attack on First Army on 17th/18th April aimed at the now customary trio of objectives, Givenchy/Festubert/Béthune, but all attacks were eventually repulsed with heavy German losses.
HSH predicted, correctly, that the worst was over, at least for 1st Army, and they faced little action until the formal end of the German Offensive on the 26th April. (Later, HSH was prone to claim he was the only BEF army commander not to move his HQ during the whole German 1918 Spring Offensive; he had planned for the eventuality, but never felt the need.)
Indeed, on 28th April 1918, such was HSH's confidence in First Army, he approached Haig about a possible counter-attack against the Germans. Haig agreed in principle that such planning should go ahead and returned to 1st Army the three Canadian divisions he had earlier ordered it to loan to Second Army.
Although it was not clear for some months, First Army had come through this maelstrom of fire and movement as well as any other, and better than most. In effect, some observers and participants, but certainly not all, thought that the Germans had to a large extent shot their bolt on the Western Front. Accordingly, HSH and others thought it was now time for the Allies to take the initiative and, boosted by the ever-increasing American contribution, take the battle to the Germans.
From May 1918 onwards, First Army maintained a low level of operations tidying up the battlefront and keeping the Germans on their guard whilst meeting Haig's wish for persistent pressure on the enemy. Several putative attacks were eventually ruled out due to the lack of troops, or because the difficulty of the terrain made the likely outcome unworthy of the effort and the probable casualties that would be incurred. However, one particular operation was notable as on the 13th May, against HSH's better judgement, 5,000 steel cylinders of toxic chlorine gas were discharged into the German lines. The reason for this gigantic discharge is not clear. Perhaps it was a left-over from the Spring Offensive and HQ BEF just wanted to get it out of the British trenches: it certainly wasn't something the British troops wanted stacked up in situ in huge quantities, since a single chance enemy shell could have caused a disaster.
As April turned to May, both Haig and HSH were increasingly convinced – largely by reports from German POWs – that the Germans planned yet another attack that would include the frontage of First Army. Although when the blow came on 27th May, it fell on the French along the Aisne, the two commanders were still convinced an attack on the British would follow.
Nevertheless, at Haig's continued to urge that the fight be taken to the enemy, HSH launched a limited attack on 15th June 1918 by his 3rd Division in the Bethune Sector. Using the by now standard attack tactic of a creeping barrage, the objectives were reached but no follow-up was made. A similar successful attack followed on 28th June in the Nieppe Forest area.
In July 1918, the Portuguese troops assigned to First Army were progressively withdrawn and took no further part in the fighting on the Western Front. Theirs had not been a happy relation with the BEF in general and First Army in particular.
Another Haig inspired attack by First Army and the Canadian Corps in the Monchy-Le-Preux area was aborted after representations from both commanders. A poorly defined operation by the Canadians in the Oppy area did not produce any significant results.
(N.B. The 1918 Influenza epidemic: Around this time the first cases began to occur of what came to be called The Spanish Influenza Pandemic. Large numbers of Allied soldiers succumbed to the illness (around 15% of the current ration strength, with considerable variations between individual military units), and a death rate of around 6% for the whole BEF. But the strategic effect of the disease was limited as all the belligerent armies were similarly affected.)
The British 100 Days Offensive.
Having finally got Foch's permission to launch an attack from Amiens on 8th August 1918, (General Erich Ludendorf''s "The Black Day of the Germany Army") Haig ordered HSH to join in the fray. And on 15th August, First Army attacked towards Monchy-le-Preux Village with the ultimate objective of seizing Bapaume. Bapaune finally fell to the New Zealanders on 29th August 1918.
Although, of course, no one realised it at the time, these actions in August were the beginning of the terminal series of battles on the Western Front that became to be known as The British 100 Days Offensive.
The Battle of Scarpe: Whilst HSH was continuing with more minor local actions, Haig proposed, on 24th August 1918, that First Army should begin on 26th August a whole new advance northwards towards Cambrai. The overall objectives were Monchy-le-Preux, and, ultimately the Drecourt-Quéant (D-Q) and Canal du Nord defensive lines. Complete surprise was achieved largely by a series of deceptions. As usual, 2nd and 3rd Canadian Divisions were in the van, heavily supported by field and heavy artillery batteries, eighteen tanks and ample air cover. In close support was 51st Division. With-in a few hours most of the intermediate objectives had been met and Monchy-le-Preux was in Canadian hands. However, the ridge of the Scarpe River only fell to 51st Division after heavy fighting overnight.
On 27th August 1918, HSH ordered further advances beyond the D-Q defensive line by the Canadians who found it to be strongly held. After a few days of consolidation, including reinforcement by 4th Division (British), several of the villages adjacent to the defence line were captured in fierce fighting. But the D-Q Line remained unbroken. Further attempts were made on 28th , 29th and 30th August without success, and the casualties were mounting fast; the Canadians alone had lost almost 6,000 men. By 1st September 1918, Haig had organised a concerted effort by First, Third and Fourth Armies on the D-Q Line. HSH having assured an atypically querulous Haig that First Army could perform its part satisfactorily.
On 2nd September 1918, an attack at 0500hrs by the Canadians broke the D-Q Line on a front of 7,000 yards. In effect, this made the German's Scarpe defences untenable, forcing an immediate German withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line and to behind the Canal du Nord. However, HSH's objective of the Canal du Nord was still outstanding. But, due to the heavy casualties sustained by the Canadians and others, this aim was put on a temporary hold until sufficient resources could be mustered. Meanwhile, constant pressure was maintained on the retreating Germans.
Haig at this point realised that the static war of the trenches was fast coming to an end and that a phase of more open warfare and mobility was coming to the fore. Accordingly, he instructed his commanders to set aside the old trench warfare dogmas and asked them to encourage initiative and a more adventurous spirit, reinforcing success, and not to over react to limited local setbacks.
Canal du Nord and the Hindenburg Line: As part of the joint attack strategy with Third and Fourth Army, HSH now planned to move onto the Hindenburg defence line and the associated Canal du Nord defences. And, once more, a deception plan of false troop movements and probing attacks was initiated to wrong foot the Germans as to which direction an assault would be made.
Haig gave his orders to the three armies on 16th September 1918; First Army would attack Bourlon Wood on the 25th September – later revised to the 27th – by crossing en route the Canal du Nord, whilst Third Army would provide support. On 29th September, Fourth Army would follow through and link up with the other two.
First Army's task was daunting. The structural work on the Canal du Nord had not been completed before the War began but it had been incorporated in the defences of the Hindenburg Line; it was eight feet deep and 40 yards wide. Along its eastern bank was the highly fortified Canal du Nord defence line, which was itself backed up by another defence line, the Marquion Line. The potential battlefield had been flooded earlier by the Germans. Accordingly, First Army would have to concentrate its effort on the drier part of their frontage that was situated towards the East.
When drawing up his plans for First Army's crossing of the Canal du Nord, and attacking on the Hindenburg Line, HSH bore in mind Haig's instructions about a new attitude and concentrated on the positive. He also continued to mop-up the remaining points of resistance west of the canal. As usual the Canadians were to be in the van along with 11th Division; four divisions in all plus 25 tanks with British XXII Corps in support. (It is not surprising that we learn the Canadians were beginning to feel that their battlefield success and reputation was leading them to be 'volunteered' for difficult operations a bit too frequently.)
At 0530hrs on 27th September 1918, the attack on the canal began with a creeping barrage. The canal was quickly crossed allowing the Canadians to advance with the tanks on Bourlon Wood and the Marquion Line. Here they were held up by fierce resistance from Quarry Wood, but without affecting the main crossing further south. Eventually, both Quarry and Bourlon Woods were cleared and the Marquion Line rolled-up, all within two and fifteen minutes of Zero Hour.
Then the creeping barrage and tanks moved on and the Canadians entered Bourlon Village with the support of 11th Division.
By nightfall of 27th September, HSH was delighted by the outcome of the assault. The Canal du Nord had been crossed on a narrow front and then the attackers spread outwards on a much wider frontage. Also, the Canal du Nord and the Marquion defences lines had been captured and Bourlon Wood had been encircled – it was too densely affected by toxic gas to be entered. An overall territorial advance of nearly 50 sq. miles had been achieved. Moreover, the deception plan had worked well and the artillery had performed as required, meeting almost all expectations. Above all, the troops involved had carried out their tasks effectively with the Canadians in particular showing their usual exceptional martial skills and determination.
Overnight, and during 28th September, First Army consolidated its gains. But on the 29th and 30th, fierce German counterattacks stalled the advance and threatened HSH's plan to capture the important hill top villages of Cuvilliers and Abancourt, and their environs, and to encircle the strategically important town of Cambrai.
Heavy fighting continued on 31st September and into October with the Canadians still taking the brunt of the almost ceaseless German counterattacks, whilst First Army as a whole tried to keep the initiative. Meanwhile, the supporting operations in the north by First Army's VIII Corps continued around the now unoccupied town of Lens which they finally entered on 3rd October 1918.
The last defences of the Hindenburg Line were conclusively shattered by the joint operations of three French armies on 8th October 1918. First Army's XXII Corps with 1st Canadian Division providing diversionary actions around the still operational parts of the D-Q Line and crossings of the River Sensée.
By 9th October, there was a general sense that German resolve was weakening, and HSH upped the pressure on all fronts. The advances continued over the next few days culminating in a general retirement by the Germans to the Douai/Haute Deule Canal on 12th October, all the while following a 'burnt earth' strategy. First Army reached the western bank of the canal on 16th October 1918.
On 8th October, another joint three-army assault was made between Cambrai and St. Quentin. First Army's supporting role was to put pressure on the Canal d'Escaut sector north of Cambrai and it succeeded in crossing the canal and taking Cambrai.
Also, on 9th October, Haig received a message from the British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, in which he congratulated the BEF for the recent successes of First, Third and Fourth Armies and, in particular, their destruction of the so-called impregnable German defence lines.
For the next week First Army continued its advance - with the Candian's 2nd and 3rd Divisions, and the British 11th , 49th and 51st Divisions all playing a major role – leading to the capture of the much sought-after target of Douai on 17th October. To the disgust of HSH and his troops, the Germans had characteristically reduced the town to a ruin during the process of their withdrawal.
Valenciennes: Typically, the capture of Douai immediately led to another challenge for First Army as the German retreat continued relentlessly pursued by the Allies. This time Valenciennes was the objective – a large town located on the western and eastern banks of the Schelde Canal. This meant crossing the River Sensée. The crossing took place on 17th/18th October by the Canadians and the British VIII Corps. Such was the rapidity of movement – 5 miles or more a day – that increasingly cyclists and the cavalry were deployed. However, the rapidity of these advances caused logistics problems that were enhanced by the aforementioned 'scorched earth' policy of the Germans, and the growing need to assist the local population in obtaining their own food.
On 20th October the town of Denain fell to elements of First Army. However, the bridges on the Scarpe River had been blown by the Germans, and this further hampered progress in this sector.
HSH now issued orders for the advance on 24th October to a further objective towards the Le Quesnoy/Valenciennes Railway via the Scheldt River and that objective was crossed on that date. However, a strong German counter-attack at 1430hrs on the 28th October, pushed 51st Division back towards the village of Farmars destabilising the whole advance and delaying the planned relief of 51st Division. (Later appraisals of this delay in the relief of the 51st. cast some doubt as to HSH's rationale for agreeing to this request by the respective commanders, and to his manner of dealing with the subsequent set-back to his plans that this entailed.) Further German counter-attacks on the Highlanders followed on 29th October, but were routed by artillery and machine gun fire; this action finally allowed 51st's relief to take place.
A follow-up attack on the 29th October by the Canadians and XXII Corps carried the day and the troops entered the southern suburbs of Valenciennes. Meanwhile, Third Army also closed in on the city. It wasn't until 1st November that the city itself was assaulted again by a joint British/Canadian force. After a hard day of fighting, patrols entered the city. Large numbers of German prisoners were taken. Particularly by the highly successful Canadians, who were also very effective with their artillery.
On the 2nd November the Germans realised that HSH's plan to envelop the city was succeeding and ordered a fighting withdrawal.
Haig's latest orders of 4th November 1918, required yet another co-ordinated push by First, Third, and Fourth Armies and the French Third Army towards the prize of the old British 1914 battlefield of Mons.
Mons: As Fourth Army manoeuvred in pursuit of the retreating but orderly Germans, First Army's objective for the 4th November, the Franco-Belgian border, was reached by the Canadian and XXII Corps on the 3rd November 1918. It opened up territory well suited to a more mobile form of warfare. The river Aunelle, which marked the border, was quickly crossed on the 4th November and even a German counter-attack failed to seriously destabilise the crossing points.
The forward advance resumed at 0530hrs on 5th November, but the complex of rivers they faced – e.g. Angreau and Grand Honnelle – slowed the advance, providing points of resistance for the Germans that were well exploited. On 6th November, clear signs were evident that the enemy was in full retreat, with resistance becoming more token. The towns of Condé and Hergnies and the Mons-Condé Canal quickly fell, opening the road to Mons 10 miles distant.
On 9th November 1918, HSH made the Maubeuge-Mons road the next objective for First Army with the Canadian Corps advancing to the north to cut off the enemy's retreat. The former objective was achieved by XXII Corps as night fell.
HSH's objectives of 10th November were a continuation of the drive on the strategically important town of Mons itself. Despite a more determined stand by the Germans, with particularly heavy machine gun fire against the Canadians south of the Mons-Condé Canal, the advance continued. The fighting continued unabatedly well into the night but, at dawn, the Canadians were finally able to take possession of the town of Mons by meeting up with their colleague attacking from the North.
Formal confirmation of the Armistice did not arrive at First Army Headquarters until after 0600hrs on 11th November 1918. Immediately, HSH sent out signals to his Corps commanders that it would become effective at 1100hrs that day. The Canadian Corps had problems contacting some of their divisions in the line, but all received the message before the deadline.
For some soldiers of First Army, but by now very few, the war had began at Mons and ended at Mons after 51 months of war.
Like most of his contemporaries, HSH had spent much of his early career fighting the wars of the British Empire against colonial malcontents and he had no experience of wars against the huge conscript armies such as those of the European Powers. The intense static set pieces of the American Civil and the Russian/Japanese Wars in the late 19th Century, when tens of thousands of men were thrown into costly frontal infantry attacks against entrenched and well-armed troops, along with fierce artillery bombardments, had registered only in a minor way with the British and French. But the Germans had duly noted the needs for specific materiél and special munitions for trench warfare, and by 1914 had procured ample supplies accordingly.
So these former conflicts had not greatly affected the British way of fighting with its infantry, cavalry and artillery when the Great War began. Indeed, the British Regular Imperial soldier has been likened to a highly skilled and disciplined gamekeeper lightly armed with a rifle instead of a shotgun whilst the artillery of the BEF was light and relied on shrapnel shells rather than high explosives.
Accordingly, Britain's relatively small force that made up the BEF was grossly outnumbered by the French and German forces in terms of both manpower and materiél. It only acted in a secondary (if efficient) role to France in the early fighting on the Western Front. Once the Western Front was stabilised, and became largely enmeshed in static trench warfare, the British generals found themselves rather at a loss of what to do; encumbered as they were by low troop numbers, inadequate equipment and weapons, and even a severe shell shortage. Inevitably, the BEF was, by fact and commission, largely confined to dancing to France's operational dictates; only after 1916 did the British begin to take a leading role on the Western Front.
Just like his mid-grade officer comrades, Horne was condemned on occasion to carry out the ill-conceived/informed orders of his superiors, some of who were quite out of their depth, and to accept the prevailing realities. He too suffered extraordinary losses in battle (e.g. the 10th Battalion West Yorkshire Regiment on the Somme, July 1916, with 90% casualties) and operational set-backs and blunders (High Wood, 1916) which, no matter how he tried to justify them, must have surely reflected on his self- regard. However, there are numerous references to the wishes of HSH to care for his troops. In this process he created new technologies and methodologies that he hoped would improve operation capabilities (particularly by the artillery) and reduce casualties; his role in the development of the successful 'creeping barrage' concept being a particular case in point.
One final consideration of his aptitude as a fighting general is the success he had with the Canadian Corps. (And one can be pretty safe in thinking that HSH himself must have considered himself to be extremely fortunate to have these excellent infantry battalions under his command for such an extended period.) The Battle of Vimy Ridge, April 1917, is an outstanding example; all objectives being gained at a comparatively low cost of 10% overall casualties. The Canadians (60% of whom were British born) became known as the best shock troops of the BEF and, whilst gaining a reputation as 'tough troops' to handle, never demurred when asked to follow the orders of HSH. Perhaps the toughness of the British/Canadian troops was in part an innate outcome of the fitness selection process related to their status as recent immigrants in a tough, pioneering country.
As mentioned earlier in the text, Don Farr's book – The Silent General – has resolved in great detail many lacunae and discrepancies in the former military and personal record of General Sir Henry Sinclair Horne. And this author is most appreciative of, and indebted to, this resource. I must admit, however, to what might be thought by some readers as an over-punctiliousness with dates: as a reader of war studies I am frequently frustrated by my inability to readily follow the chronology of a military event due the apparent paucity of detailed dates in the text.
Of course, any errors of commission and omission in this article are entirely those of this author.