Battle was mired in controversy before it even began

A plan of the offensive.
A plan of the offensive.

This is the first part of a feature to mark the centenary of the 1917 Flanders Offensive, a campaign which lasted from June 7 to November 10, 1917.

The articles aim to provide the reader with a brief overview of events on the Flanders battlefields 100 years ago, to provide context, understanding and appreciation of a campaign with a reputation every bit as infamous as the Somme.

Sir Hubert Gough

Sir Hubert Gough

As with last year’s articles on the 1916 Battles of the Somme, they will go on to reflect the campaign’s impact on the wider Alnwick district by using statistical data and relating background information on some of the men killed in action or who died of wounds received or other causes during the campaign, as recorded in the database compiled in 2015 by Alnwick District WW1 Centenary Commemoration Group (now held by Northumberland Branch of the Western Front Association).

CONTROVERSIES

The 1917 Flanders Offensive, especially that part of it known as the 3rd Battles of Ypres (today, known as Ieper) or Passchendaele as it is commonly referred to by the British, was the most controversial British campaign of the First World War on the Western Front. It was mired in controversy before, during and afterwards. Even today it generates strong opinions among military historians as to how it was or should have been conducted and on such as changes to the original plan of attack in the weeks before launching the second phase. Many highlight the risks taken with the only effective Allied offensive force on the Western Front, at that time.

Perhaps the greatest controversies surrounding the campaign focus on continuation and control in the unseasonal weather encountered for most of its duration. In the end, it may be true to say neither side could justifiably lay claim to best achieving its objectives.

Thomas Chrisp

Thomas Chrisp

PRELUDE

By the end of 1914, the original British Expeditionary Force (BEF) had effectively been destroyed. The British Army in 1915 was de-skilled after the loss of its cadre of volunteer professional soldiers, so that year was one devoted to re-building based largely on partially-trained Territorial Force units and the enthusiastic but initially untrained volunteers who flocked to join Field Marshal Lord Horatio Kitchener’s New Armies.

Grandiose plans for an offensive in Flanders were first drawn up by the BEF in 1915. Sir Douglas Haig, in 1916 the Commander-in- Chief, favoured an offensive in Flanders that year rather than on the Somme. However, Alliance politics and other factors determined the latter was the focus of the BEF’s contribution to the Triple Entente’s (Russia, France and Britain) co-ordinated efforts for that year.

PEACE FEELERS AND THE IMPORTANCE OF BELGIUM

The explosion of a mine at the Battle of Messine.

The explosion of a mine at the Battle of Messine.

By the end of 1916, all belligerents were exhausted but none were beaten and the strategic balance appeared little changed from the beginning of the year. Early in September, while Britain sought clarification of the Pope’s feelers for peace, a conference was held in Germany where Paul von Hindenburg, the German Army’s Chief of the General Staff, and his deputy, Erich Ludendorff, temporarily abandoned support for the Navy’s demands for submarine bases on the Channel coast, but they soon reverted to the view that German control of Belgium was essential as a jumping-off point to Paris and for control of the Channel. The Ypres area limited German room for manoeuvre, but it offered the Allies the potential not only to win the war but also to lose it, which could not be said of elsewhere on the Western Front. The Channel ports of Boulogne and Calais were not only central to the Western Front they were also key to the supply route for the Salonika theatre of operations.

In Britain, Prime Minister David Lloyd George’s view was that a separate peace with Germany was not possible while the German Government was heavily influenced and controlled by its Army. The British Government wavered but eventually rejected feelers for peace, so both sides reverted to their full war aims. Distrust amongst the belligerents became more deep-rooted.

BRITISH GOALS

Throughout the First World War, Britain’s principal goal was to maintain its predominance as the world’s premier sea power. Limited destroyer resources in 1916 led Admiral Sir John Jellicoe to recommend withdrawal from distant theatres of operation (eg, Salonika) so that resources could be concentrated to protect Western Front lines of communication.

Planning for an offensive in Flanders was under way throughout the winter of 1916/17 when Belgium was central to the position of all parties. The BEF’s objectives for the coming offensive were to: 1. Wear out the enemy; 2. Secure the Belgian coast; 3. Connect with the Dutch frontier by the capture of Passchendaele ridge; 4. Advance on Roulers, the main hub of the German railway network supporting their 4th Army facing Ypres; and 5. Operation Hush, an attack along the coast with an amphibious landing.

From early on there appears to have been a recognition that if manpower and artillery were insufficient, only the first part of the plan might be fulfilled. However, this interpretation may simply be a later re-writing of history to reflect the offensive’s limited achievements.

ALLIANCE POLITICS

In 1917, among the Entente Allies both France and Russia faltered. French morale collapsed after failure of the Nivelle Offensive in April and May – a precarious truce within the French Parliament followed with up to a third of Deputies wanting to sue for peace. David Lloyd George’s support for the unsuccessful offensive, and his determination to use the Salonika theatre, then the Italian theatre as means to undermine Germany rather than give more effective support to the BEF on the Western Front, undermined his own position and caused him great difficulty persuading Cabinet colleagues to support what passed as strategy. Partial withdrawal in France of left-wing support for continuation of the war was followed, in August, by similar moves in Britain.

The collapse of Russia following two revolutions in 1917 and the limited involvement in the war of Italy and, especially, the USA, left the BEF as the only Allied force in the field on the Western Front capable of offensive action. Fear of America superseding Britain as the premier world power may have been an important consideration when planning 3rd Ypres. There was no real expectation of large and effective American forces before 1919, so the Allies needed to both survive and hang on until then.

OBJECTIVE OF THE OFFENSIVE

The 1917 Flanders Offensive lasted from June 7 to November 10, as the Allies sought to gain control of the Mid-Western Flemish Ridge, a series of highs, at no point more than 80 metres above sea level, and lows, running for about 25 kilometres long by 8 kilometres deep to the east and south of Ypres.

GERMAN DEFENCES

For Germany in 1917, the decisive battle was always going to be submarine warfare, a strategy which demanded that the Flemish coast, and the submarine bases there, be defended. On the Western Front, for fear of being rolled-up and losing the coast, the Germans had to stand and fight, and this resulted in introduction of a new strategy of elastic defence in depth – a lightly-held front line with sophisticated defensive systems/zones built on high points incorporating hundreds of pill-boxes/blockhouses, some estimates are as high as 2,000, often no more than 100 to 150 metres apart and protected by masses of barbed wire. Counter-attack divisions were held out of artillery range, perhaps four to five kilometres behind the front line.

BATTLE OF MESSINES, JUNE 7–14

To deny German observation over the Ypres salient and to protect the right flank of northern operations to follow, the first of the nine battles comprising the Flanders Offensive was the Battle of Messines. This was conducted by the BEF’s 2nd Army under the command of General Sir Herbert Plumer who was a great advocate of bite and hold operations with limited goals and always under protection of an artillery umbrella. Messines was a classic, very successful bite and hold operation conducted when the weather was good and employing innovative tactics, most notably the 19 enormous subterranean mines exploded almost simultaneously which decimated the German front line and numbed its surviving defenders.

Successful tactics employed during the earlier Battles of Arras were repeated with variations which gave the British substantial superiority in artillery pieces – 2:1 for heavy guns; 5:1 for lighter guns. Wire-cutting began in mid-May. The bombardment preparatory to the main attack began on May 26, with 2,266 artillery pieces; 756 heavies; 1,158 18-pounders; 352 4.5” howitzers. 3.6 million shells were fired, equating to 144,000 tons of explosives. A sophisticated fire plan was adopted with creeping, standing (ie, to provide protection to infantry and an impenetrable curtain to deny defenders the opportunity to send forward reinforcements) and combing (ie, sweeping backwards and forwards) barrages.

At 3.10am on June 7, the mines for which the Battle of Messines is so famous began to detonate.  After the explosions, British artillery began to fire at maximum rate. A creeping barrage in three belts 640 metres deep began and counter-battery groups bombarded all known German artillery positions with gas shells.

The importance of the mines and reliance on them for successful operations meant methods employed at Messines could not be replicated in later battles. Military analysts and historians disagree on the strategic significance of the battle, although Hindenburg and Ludendorff later wrote of its impact on the German Army and of the heavy losses incurred. The loss of the ridge appears to have had a worse effect on German morale than the number of casualties.

DELAY

A major controversy surrounds Sir Douglas Haig’s decision, on April 30, prior to the Battle of Messines, to appoint General Sir Hubert Gough, and the BEF’s 5th Army which he commanded, to undertake the Northern Operation and to lead the coastal force in Operation Hush, although Cabinet approval for the offensive was not granted until June 21. Military historians have often puzzled over the choice of Gough, who was viewed as Haig’s man. Some suggest he messed up most things he touched while others will argue history may have been unkind to him with this stigmatisation for his handling of the campaign.

The inevitable delay between the Battles of Messines and Pilckem Ridge (July 31 to August 2), the first of the eight battles comprising the 3rd Battles of Ypres, was significant for three reasons. Gough was given almost seven weeks to prepare, move the 5th Army into position and re-orientate artillery when Plumer asked for only three days before launching the next bite and hold operation to immediately exploit the success of Messines. Secondly, the delay was countenanced by the War Cabinet. Thirdly, the Allies lost the element of surprise and gave the Germans time to prepare their defences. By the end of July, Germany had 65 Divisions available to face the coming offensive, four more than some weeks earlier.

LIMITED INVOLVEMENT OF LOCAL MEN

In truth, the number of local men who took part in the first phase of the Flanders Offensive was limited, nevertheless, at least 21 died on the Western Front during this period. Many more would make the ultimate sacrifice as the campaign wore on.

Interestingly, at least three of the 21 had answered the call to arms after emigrating to and then serving with the armed forces of Canada. One, Private William Carss (Canadian Infantry, 19th Battalion), was from a well-known family which suffered the loss of a second son less than six months later. William was 37 when he died, the son of James and Annie Carss, of 22 The Square, South Craster. His younger brother, 30-year-old Able Seaman Daniel Elliott Carss, was lost on October 17, 1917, when serving with the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve aboard HMS Mary Rose.

Lance Sergeant Herbert Moffitt was born in 1891 at Woolsington, where his father, Charles, was a market gardener. His father and mother, Jane Ann Moffitt (née Lambert), were both born at Bywell. Herbert had three older brothers: David (born 1887, at Felton); Joseph (born 1888); and John D (born 1889).

The 1901 census shows the family living at 2 West Street, Coxlodge. Charles was still a gardener and there were three more children: Jane MG (born 1894); Caroline MC (born 1895); and Mary E (born 1900), all born at Gosforth. By 1911, the family was living at 6 Howard Place, Gosforth. Herbert, aged 20, was, then, a colliery labourer and he had yet another sister, Martha Clarke (born 1903). According to this census there had been 10 children born into the family but two had died.

Herbert married Elizabeth Thorborn at the end of 1916. Elizabeth was born in 1889 at Abberwick and, at the time of Herbert’s death, she lived at Broome Park, Bridge End, Alnwick, home of her parents. She never remarried and died in 1976 aged 87.

COMPANY SERGEANT MAJOR THOMAS CHRISP, MM

Despite the limited involvement of local men in the Battle of Messines, a cursory glance at the Roll of Honour shows there were actions further south, in the Arras sectors.

There, one of the most notable losses was Company Sergeant Major Thomas Chrisp MM who served with the Durham Light Infantry, 1/8th Battalion Territorial Force. He was only 24 years of age when he was killed on June 22, 1917.

Thomas was born on October 7, 1892, at Otterburn, the son of Isabel Ann (Annie) (née Charlton) and Thomas Chrisp, who eventually became Inspector of Police at Wooler and where Thomas Jnr attended the local Church of England school. From September 1906, Thomas Jnr attended the Duke’s School, Alnwick, and worked part-time as a pupil teacher at his previous school.

Thomas Snr died in January 1910, and the family moved to Denwick. Annie gained employment at Hexham Magistrates as a caretaker so moved there with her younger children, leaving Thomas Jnr at Alnwick where he lived with his uncle, Inspector Sanderson. Thomas played football and cricket for the Duke’s School. He left in summer 1911 and began working as an assistant at Guide Post Primary School, Choppington. His future wife, May Dickinson Hedley, started as a teacher there on the same day.

Thomas attended Bede College, Durham, from 1912 to 1914 to train as a teacher. He continued to excel at sport, playing football, rugby and tennis for the college and as a member of the boating crew. Thomas married May on June 24, 1916, at Hexham Abbey, a month before he re-joined his regiment abroad. Their son, John Thomas Hedley Chrisp, was born on March 17, 1917.

When war broke out, Thomas was attending the annual training camp of the Bede College Territorial Army unit at Conway. He volunteered immediately and was given the rank of Sergeant. After training, the battalion left for France on April 19, 1915. Thomas took part in 2nd Battle of Ypres where, on April 25, he was shot through his right arm and left thigh. He returned to England and after his recovery was involved in training new recruits and promoted to Sergeant Major.

He re-joined his battalion in July 1916, near Ypres and then travelled towards the Somme. For the resourceful leading of his platoon during the capture of the Fleurs line at the beginning of October 1916, Thomas was awarded the Military Medal.

In early June 1917, Thomas had his photograph taken with other warrant officers and sergeants at Souastre. The battalion was holding trenches near Cherisy. According to the battalion’s war diary, at 8am on Saturday, June 23, Thomas was hit by a fishtail bomb (whizz-bang) and killed outright as he entered his dug-out. Both the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and Soldiers Died... record the date of death as June 22.

l The second part of this article, in a few weeks, will deal with the second phase of the Flanders Offensive beginning with the Battle of Pilckem Ridge followed by the Battle of Langemarck (August 16 to 18).

Anyone with information on ancestors with a wider Alnwick connection who were lost in the 3rd Battles of Ypres is encouraged to contact the author via ww1alnwickproject@yahoo.co.uk

Visitors are welcome at the Western Front Association’s monthly meetings, which generally take place on the fourth Monday of the month at 7.15pm (for 7.30pm). The next meeting is on Monday, June 26, at The Pottergate Centre, Alnwick, when Colin Buxton will deliver his talk, Three Bombing Raids. The suggested minimum donation is £2. Further details from branch secretary Dave Barras on 01670 760809 or dbarras1970@gmail.com

ROLL OF HONOUR

For each entry, the format is name and rank; regiment/battalion; date of death; age; where commemorated or buried (if found).

Lance Corporal John Robert Buddle; Northumberland Fusiliers, 1/6th Battalion Territorial Force; 26 May; 35; Arras Memorial (Faubourg d’Amiens Cemetery).

Private William Carss; Canadian Infantry, 19th Battalion; 31 May; 37; Embleton (Spitalford) Cemetery.

Lieutenant (Temporary Captain) Alfred Percy Brewis; Northumberland Fusiliers, 1st Battalion, attached 1/5th Battalion, East Lancashire Regiment; 1 June; 22; Neuville-Bourjonval British Cemetery.

Sergeant Vincent Amos; Northumberland Fusiliers, 1/7th Battalion Territorial Force; 3 June; 28; Etaples Military Cemetery.

Sapper Richard Douglas; Royal Engineers, 2nd Field Squadron; 4 June; Unknown; Honnechy British Cemetery.

Private George Henry Bates; Northumberland Fusiliers, 21st (Service) Battalion (2nd Tyneside Scottish); 5 June; Unknown; Arras Memorial (Faubourg d’Amiens Cemetery).

Private William Cockburn; Northumberland Fusiliers, 20th (Service) Battalion (1st Tyneside Scottish); 5 June; Unknown; Arras Memorial (Faubourg d’Amiens Cemetery).

Lance Corporal Dixon Donkin; Northumberland Fusiliers, 26th (Service) Battalion (3rd Tyneside Irish); 5 June; Unknown; Arras Memorial (Faubourg d’Amiens Cemetery).

Private Thomas Edwards; Northumberland Fusiliers, 22nd (Service) Battalion (3rd Tyneside Scottish); 5 June; 25; Arras Memorial (Faubourg d’Amiens Cemetery).

Corporal Joseph Robert Hall; Northumberland Fusiliers, 26th (Service) Battalion (3rd Tyneside Irish); 5 June; 26; Arras Memorial (Faubourg d’Amiens Cemetery).

Acting Sergeant Walter Richardson; Northumberland Fusiliers, 1st Battalion; 7 June; 35; Arras Memorial (Faubourg d’Amiens Cemetery).

Private Robert Sherlaw Alexandra, Princess of Wales’ Own (Yorkshire Regiment), 2nd Battalion; 9 June; 36; Choppington (St Paul) Churchyard.

Private Luke Robson Smailes; Canadian Infantry, 75th Battalion; 10 June; 29; Longuenesse (St Omer) Souvenir Cemetery.

Private John Wilson; Northumberland Fusiliers, 23rd (Service) Battalion (4th Tyneside Scottish); 12 June; 23; Duisans British Cemetery, Etrun.

Sergeant Thomas Arthur Earl; Northumberland Fusiliers, 12th (Service) Battalion; 16 June; 28; Arras Memorial (Faubourg d’Amiens Cemetery).

Private Thomas Harper; Prince of Wales’ Leinster Regiment (Royal Canadians); 17 June; 20; Ieper (Menin Gate) Memorial.

Company Sergeant Major Thomas Chrisp, MM; Durham Light Infantry, 1/8th Battalion Territorial Force; 22 June; 24; Neuville-Vitasse Road Cemetery.

Gunner James Edmond Hall; Royal Garrison Artillery, 160th Siege Battery; 23 June; 21; Dickebusch New Military Cemetery Extension.

Private George W Duffy; Prince of Wales’ Leinster Regiment (Royal Canadians), 2nd Battalion; 24 June; 19; Etaples Military Cemetery.

Bombardier J Ainsley; Royal Garrison Artillery, 128th Heavy Battery; 26 June; 30; Dickebusch New Military Cemetery Extension.

Gunner Edward Amies; Royal Field Artillery, A Battery, 147th Brigade; 26 June; Unknown; Maroc British Cemetery.

Driver Wilfred Jeffrey; Royal Engineers, 88th Field Company; 30 June; 28; Baghdad North Gate Cemetery, Iraq.