The Western Front Association welcomed the return of Rob Thompson, ex-Birmingham University, now a freelance writer, to Alnmouth Ex-Servicemen’s Club.
It was not the most auspicious of starts. Rob had transport problems, and, rather than disappoint his audience, he finally made the 180-mile trip from Bolton by motorbike.
Unfortunately, this made it impossible for him to bring his laptop and projector.
Nothing daunted, Rob deliv
ered a masterclass on the Third Battle of Ypres, totally without notes or visual aids.
By the end of 1914, the war had degenerated into stalemate, with an unbroken line of trenches stretching from Nieuport on the North Sea to the Swiss border.
The only way to break such an impasse was by a flanking movement. Since the Allies could not very well attack through Switzerland (a neutral country), Flanders was the only alternative.
It was doubly attractive as a target since an advance here would sever the German supply lines, consisting of two railway tracks, leaving the army in the north without support.
Having been deflected from his chosen target in 1916 by events at Verdun (leading to the tragedy of the Somme), and after French General Nivelle’s war-winning offensive had proved a costly disaster in early 1917, Douglas Haig finally had his way.
Preparations had begun as far back as 1915 with 19 deep mines stretching out under the German lines ready to be ‘blown’.
Added to this, General Plumer had an artillery piece for every seven yards of front, and some 200,000 tons of shells ready to fire.
At 0310 on June 7, 1917, the area witnessed what must be the first demonstration of ‘shock and awe’ as the mines (and the whistles) blew, and the artillery opened up with a covering, lifting barrage.
Plumer had planned merely to take the first German lines, but margin notes in his draft plan indicate that Haig thought this would achieve nothing (quite justifiably), and insisted all three lines of German defence should be captured.
While hailed as a stunning success, it must be remembered that the advance gained only one mile in depth, Berlin was still a long way away.
So the methodical Plumer was replaced by General Gough, youngest of all the generals, and considered to be a ‘thruster’.
However, the very success of Plumer’s attack caused problems for Gough. The guns of all calibres were worn by constant use and the area was littered with the detritus of war.
Finally, on July 31, 1917, the battle best known as Passchendaele began.
Pilckem Ridge was taken successfully, but the advance stalled at Langemark as there was simply no support to carry the battle further.
On August 20, Plumer was reinstated, and began a series of ‘bite and hold’ attacks that initially proved successful at Menin Road, Polygon Wood and Broodsinde.
On October 4, the rain started, and the advance stalled below Tyne Cot.
There was a choice – either go on through the terrible conditions, or retreat back.
The second option was unthinkable, not least politically, and so the legend of the hell that was Passchendale came about.
While the mud is usually accepted as the reason for not achieving all objectives, Rob takes a rather different view.
He contends, and with justification, that the mud could and should have been overcome if the Royal Engineers had been developed and expanded at the same rate as the other arms of the BEF.
It would and should have been possible to build more than one duckboard across the swamp that resulted from high explosive mixed with clay soil and torrential rain.
But the Engineers still relied on the ordinary Tommy (borrowed from soldiering duties) to do the labouring work. The strategy of 1915 had employed artillery and engineering working together, but this seemed to have been forgotten as the artillery grew and the Engineers remained static.
Rob had talked for almost 90 minutes without notes on an unprepared topic. A real trooper .
The next meeting of the WFA is at 7.15 pm on Monday, October 28, with the subject I’m Big Bertha – Beware of Immitations, by David Easton, a light-hearted look at some of the big guns (and other things) from the Great War.
On Monday, November 25, it is the turn of Derek Gladding to talk about a 1911 German outlook on the impending Great European War.
WFA meetings take place at 7.15pm (for 7.30 pm) at Alnmouth & District Ex-Servicemen’s Club. The suggested minimum donation is £1, to include a light supper.