The Bulletin of the Birmingham Branch of the WFA

 

March 2011

THE BRITISH DEFENCE SYSTEM (1)

The Germans had no intention of giving up their conquered territory so heavily fortified their positions, thus: 'What we have, we hold' and 'One line and a strong one' (although they did later establish more lines farther back). On the other hand the imperative for the French was to drive the enemy from their country so that their trenches were regarded merely as places from which to mount assaults and therefore not well developed.

The British, perhaps more pragmatically, adopted an in between policy. Therefore the shallow trenches hastily dug where the troops went to ground developed into a defensive system intended to ensure that if an attack succeeded in breaking into it, it would not break through it and that the attackers would suffer heavy losses and become vulnerable to counter attacks. In general terms it consisted of the following.

First were the ever more elaborate barbed wire defences. Some gaps were left to enable our own patrols and working parties to pass through and sometimes avenues were left open to channel attackers into fire traps. Ordinarily the wire would be situated beyond hand grenade throwing distance. Some distance in front of the front line trench there might be listening posts to prevent the defenders being taken by surprise.

The front line trench was the main line of defence and consisted of a trench with fire bays or traverses to prevent it being enfiladed and to limit the effects of shell bursts. There might be another 'supervision' trench running parallel to it a little way back. Obviously the trench would have been deep enough for a man to stand up in without exposing himself. Firesteps were necessary to enable the men to be able to fire over the parapet

when necessary.  There would usually
be an open drain down the middle of the trench, ideally covered by duckboards. There were usually some shallow dugouts but these seem to have been for the use of officers only or as first aid posts. Certain 'trench stores' such as ammunition, very lights, etc, were handed over from garrison to garrison.

A support line similar to this was sited at from seventy to a hundred yards behind. The troops in this line were automatically to reinforce the front line and to eject any enemy who succeeded in entering it, usually by bombing along the trenches. At anything from 400 to 600 yards behind the front line was a reserve line which was usually less well developed.

Strong points were situated at positions, the loss of which would endanger the whole sector. Machine guns might be placed in or behind the front line but it was some time before they came under centralised control for the whole machine gun belt. The lines were connected by zig zag communication trenches which might also serve to seal off an enemy. An intricate network of telephone cables was laid, buried wherever possible to protect them from shell fire. Vertical cables might be connected at intervals by lateral ones so that a break at one point would not necessarily put the whole system out of action.

A battalion garrisoning a sector would usually have two or three companies in the front line who would find their own supports. The remaining company (companies) would be in the reserve line and be used at the battalion commander's discretion. Companies rotated every few days. In the event of an attack, artillery fire (SOS barrage) would be called for in accordance with standing arrangements, possibly by firing coloured flares. The front line had to be defended with great determination and the importance of immediate counter attack to recover lost trenches was stressed. However the following rule of thumb seemed to apply: 'Those made instantly on the initiative of the local commander usually succeeded; those ordered by higher authority and made in a hurry usually failed; deliberate counter attacks with time to prepare often succeeded.'

The British defensive system changed in 1918.

Bob Butcher

 

PROJECT MANAGEMENT: 1914-18

The first wave of the BEF consisted of GHQ, a cavalry division, a cavalry brigade and two corps each of two divisions, together with GHQ (including four RFC squadrons) and Lines of Communication troops. Probably numbering not more than 150,000 professional soldiers highly skilled in minor tactics, it was well equipped for small wars. However it was not experienced in large scale operations nor was it properly equipped for continental warfare.

At the time of the Armistice it comprised GHQ, five armies, one cavalry corps, nineteen corps and sixty-three divisions. GHQ and L of C troops had multiplied on a similar scale. The RFC (now part of the RAF) had ninety-one squadrons in France.

In September 1918 the BEF had reached its peak strength of 1,916,584 including volunteers and conscripts from all sections of the nation and, indeed, from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and Portugal. Battle-hardened, it had become an immensely powerful fighting machine with effective tactics, powerful support such as artillery and tanks with logistics all welded into an unbeatable weapons system stretching from the factory to the front line.

Such an expansion presented a formidable project especially as the army had faced a sharp learning curve and was fighting major battles with inevitable teething problems and early shortages. That such a project was completed at all, let alone so successfully, was due to the army, the Government (albeit with hitches), the population and industry working together.

A member whose name I have, to my shame, forgotten allowed me to read a paper by George Bailey of the University of Westminster on: Modern project management and the lessons from the study of the transformation of the British Expeditionary Force in the Great War. I must confess that I do not really understand the point he makes but gather that modern industry can learn from the BEF experience even though the term 'project management' was unknown to those responsible..

Bob Butcher

 

DID YOU KNOW that the provision of uniforms for the early Kitchener's armies was delayed by the shortage of buttons? Am I right in thinking that button and badge-making was centred on Birmingham? Bob

 

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