37: Second Battle of Artois Pt. 1


With the previous attacks winding down the British and French prepare to launch another attack on the Western front, on very familiar ground.



Hello everyone and welcome to episode 37 of History of the Great War. Before we get started today a special shout out goes to Don for his donation. Another thank you goes to everyone who filled out the listener survey at historyofthegreatwar.com/survey. There have been many responses but we haven’t hit that magic number 100 yet, so keep them rolling. The results are not what I expected, at all, so I’m really glad I put it together and that you have taken the time to respond. This episode begins our two part series on the Second Battle of Artois. This battle was launched by the French and British troops on the western front in early May 1915 with the goal of moving the Germans off of the Vimy and Aubers Ridges so that the allied infantry could be let loose upon the Douai plain. So, if some of those words tickle your memory a bit it is likely because these are the exact same objectives as the French attacks in this exact same spot at the end of 1914 and beginning of 1915. The battle would begin on May the 9th and would run for over a month before it would finally be called off. Before we jump into action today we will take a look at the situation and some of the changes that had been made on both sides in the first several months of 1915 that would make this battle at least a little different than the ones that had come before. We will then take a deep dive into the French plan to see if there were any differences to the plan this time. Then, of course we will jump into the action as the French and British launch their respective attacks. Without further ado, lets jump in.

I’m a big fan of the quote from American Historian Douglas Porch when he said that by the summer of 1915 the French and German armies on the Western front were “locked in a siege war of such ferocity that no attack had a chance of advancing more than a few yards.” This quote would prove to be mostly accurate, but of course the armies in the field and their commanders didn’t know that. Joffre believed that attacks had to continue both to maintain the initiative as well as to help Russia. This is the somewhat tired refrain that I have been talking about awhile now but with the German attacks in Poland that we will be discussing in a few episodes it was even more important. On April 12th Joffre sent a message to Russia describing French efforts up to April 1915, I guess just making sure they knew that they weren’t just sitting on their hands in France and Belgium. Joffre fully admitted that the Germans were moving troops to the East but he assured the Russians that France was doing everything within its power to put as much pressure on the Germans as possible. I think this fact, this pressure from Russia, is one of the facets of Joffre’s continuing attacks that is often forgotten. Sure, maybe he was attacking too much, but in the east there was an ally that was constantly being attacked by the enemy. All of the pre-war discussions between the allies had revolved around both countries launching attacks so that the Germans couldn’t focus on one at a time. Now that the war was actually a reality there was real, with probably some imagined, pressure on Joffre and the entire French government to try to find a way to keep attacking. In the government though Joffre’s support was starting to show at least some cracks. In March Poincare, the French President, prompted a discussion in the Council of Ministers about Joffre’s performance since September 1914. At first glance this doesn’t appear to be a huge deal, but in fact it was akin to openly questioning Joffre’s ability to command the armies. In his account of the conversation Poincare said that there was a detailed discussion amongst the ministers about the seeming incoherence of Joffre’s objectives. Millerand, the War Minister, defended Joffre and believed that the current arrangement of giving him full reign over the conduct of the armies was imperative to seeing them be successful. While there was disagreement among the ministers the two things that were decided by the group was that if the next attack proved to be a failure the topic of Joffre would be discussed further and they would request that Joffre consult more with this major subordinate commanders. Joffre of course heard of these discussions, it is likely that he learned of them before the official notice of the request reached him due to his contact in the government. He wasn’t very pleased about the discussions, I mean, who would be, they were pretty much discussing whether or not he was incompetent without giving him the ability to defend himself. He did however agree to consult more with his junior commanders for any future operations. The next operation was coming up very soon and Joffre believed that despite the huge casualties and failures of the army up to this point they had learned many lessons and they had greatly improved their operational methodologies to the point that the next attacks would almost certainly be successful. Much of this belief revolved around the increased heavy artillery available to the armies and the presence of other weapons more suitable for trench warfare. Joffre would write that he believed “The morale of the German army is very low. Ours is marvelous we will be ready at the end of April to take the offensive and charge the Germans out of France.” Even before detailed planning got going for the offensives Joffre knew that he would need both the French and British armies attacking together and it would need to wait until the British battle of Neuve Chapelle and the French battle at St. Mihiel wound down. The next battle would be massive, the biggest of the war on the Western front since the opening offensives in August and it would be a set piece battle with all of the battle planned out before-hand.

Before the detailed planning for the offensive could get going we come back to the question that has been asked and answered several times during 1915. The same locations came up once again as the position to launch the attack Champagne and Artois. Joffre was leaning towards an attack in Artois during March and Foch would visit his headquarters from March 19-21. Foch would convince Joffre that Artois was definitely the right place to attack, Foch may have been a bit biased in his evaluation though since Artois was right in the middle of his sector of the front and Foch stood to gain a lot of prestige if the attack was successful. Foch then returned to Joffre’s headquarters on March 23rd during which he learned that Joffre had approved his proposal for an offensive in Artois, once again targeting Vimy Ridge. On the 24th detailed plans for the seizing of Vimy Ridge were submitted to Joffre. The proposed plans explained that quote “The occupation of this crest will undoubtedly have a significant effect and will result in a breakthrough of the enemy line.” On April the 19th Joffre would use this plan to compose and publish a memorandum that would say of the offensive “Attackers at all echelons will be imbued with the idea of breaking through, of going beyond the first trenches seized, of continuing to attack without stopping until the final result was achieved.” In Joffre’s writing on the upcoming battle he stated that he wanted unceasing entry of fresh troops into the battle so that the momentum of the attack wouldn’t die down like it has so many times in the war up to this point. If all of these plans sound familiar, it is because they are. This is the crux of the problems for the French in 1915, they just kept beating their heads against the same walls over and over again. I don’t necessarily criticize their desire to attack, but the lack of imagination when it came to choosing where to attack I have continuously found to be odd. The same attacks, slightly altered with new tactical doctrine, against German troops that continued to refine their defensive techniques had a very low chance of success. Another dimension was added to the offensive on April 26th when Italy entered the war. Now the French leaders believed that they needed to launch an attack to keep the Central Powers from disrupting the Italian mobilization that was currently underway. It would take weeks for the Italians to be fully mobilized so the French, particularly Joffre believed it was imperative to attack to make sure that the Germans couldn’t shift troops to the other front. The original plan was for the attack to begin on May 1st but it would very quickly find itself delayed for several days. These delays were mostly caused by the slow arrival of heavy artillery and ammunition which were considered to be mission critical for the attacks that were about to begin. The plan called for a drawn out set piece battle that would be preceded by days of bombardments on the objectives. According to Foch these bombardments were supposed to have the effect of “destroying the enemy’s morale, disorganizing his defensive measures and breaking up his obstacles and strong points.” To accomplish these goals the French would use 1,200 guns and 700,000 shells during the bombardment. Most of these guns were of the 75mm variety which weren’t perfect for trench shelling but the shear volume would still have some effect. The 75s would be joined by about 350 pieces of heavy, high trajectory, howitzers that would hit all of the German defenses and cause maximum damage. It was imperative that these guns were in place because the 75s would have problems hitting targets on the other side of Vimy Ridge. There was a huge dead zone on the other side of the Ridge that they simply couldn’t hit but the howitzers could. All of these guns would be used for a 5 day bombardment before the attack, and the French planners, after doing some math, believed that they could put 18 high explosive shells on each yard of the front during this time span.

The French troops that would carry out the attack belonged to the 10th army under the command of General Victor-Louis-Lucien d’Urbal. d’Urbal was given command of the 10th army after his well regarded performance during the race to the sea in late 1914 and he would take command of the army on April 2nd 1915. Foch really liked d’Urbal and his style of command while Joffre on the other hand found him far too excitable. The 10th army that d’Urbal commanded was made up of 6 infantry and 1 cavalry corps with an extra 3 infantry divisions tacked onto it for the attack. The Goal of the army was to attack along the Notre Dame de Lorette and against Vimy Ridge with the main attack being carried out by the 33rd, 20th, and 17th Corps which would attack along Vimy Ridge on a front of roughly 10 kilometers. In the north the 21st Corps would attack against Notre Dame de Lorette. In both of these cases the goal was the same, just as it had been so far, to push forward and capture the high ground. Once it was captured the troops would fortify it and wait for reinforcements to arrive before continuing to push forward. During this waiting period they were to prepare for counter attacks which would inevitably come from the Germans. The theory, just like Joffre wanted was that these first wave troops would rapidly be followed by a second wave that would help launch the second wave of attacks. Any long time History of the Great War listeners know that there are a lot of problems in putting this theory into practice. This battle saw the French using a large number of aerial reconnaissance flights, using the Caudrons and Farmans that we talked about last episode. The hope was that the the reconnaissance would help make the bombardment more effective. Those who recently listened to the last episode might also remember that at this point in time there wasn’t a great deal of trust between the artillerymen and the observers in the air. From d’Urbal all the way up the chain of command hopes for the attack were very high. This hopefulness was steadfast enough to not be greatly effected by the need to delay the attack over a week due the artillery showing up late. There is one piece of the attack that we haven’t touched much on so far, and that was the critical role in the plan that was to be played by the British.

Joffre knew that the British had been bringing in reinforcements from England in the form of some of the Territorial divisions and that they were being brought up to snuff behind the lines. His goal after the attack was planned was to convince the British that they should join in the attack using their troops. It is interesting to note that it is around this time that Joffre’s opinions of the British and their martial abilities may be at its lowest. Even when asking for their assistance he doesn’t seem at all convinced that they would do a very good job, or even that they would be able to really contribute to the attack. Joffre used a meeting on March 29th between all of the allied commanders, including Kitchener, to try to convince both Kitchener and Sir John French that they should join in the attack with the French. He suggested that the British attack against Auber’s Ridge to the north of the French objectives. The goal of these attacks wasn’t necessarily to break through or to make any great gains but instead to keep the Germans from moving reinforcements to the front to fight the French. The British would be attacking along with French armies all along the front for this purpose. Joffre’s belief in the necessity of these attacks had not wavered and really wouldn’t waver at any time during 1915. He was convinced that these secondary attacks were essential to pinning down German troops that would otherwise be used to close off his main attack should it break through. If I am being honest he does sort of have a point, but that point is only valid if the main attack achieved a breakthrough. If it was possible for the troops at Vimy Ridge to break through the German lines decisively the attacks all along the line would put the German commanders in a great quandry not that dissimilar to that faced by Joffre back during the Battle of the Frontiers. If the pressure was great enough from the secondary attacks the Germans couldn’t have concentrated the troops defending from those attacks to keep d’Urbals troops from continuing their advance. As I said though, these points are only valid if the troops at Vimy Ridge were able to make a decsive breakthrough otherwise they would just create a lot of extra casualties. Anyway, back to the British. Kitchener, as was often the case, would not agree to the attack during the meeting with Joffre. However he did agree to relieve some of the French troops around Ypres so that they would be at the disposal of the French. However, only 3 days later, in a pretty big turn of events, Sir John French informed Joffre that the British would be joining in on the attack in May while also keeping the agreement to relieve the troops around Ypres. It must have been like Christmas morning for Joffre who had left the meeting on March 29th disappointed. Joffre was told that the British would follow his advice and attack against Aubers Ridge just to the north of Vimy. This battle is often not lumped in with the Second Battle of Artois and is often referred to as the Battle of Auber’s Ridge. Just wanted to make sure I got that fact out there because it confused me for a bit as well while researching causing me to have this random set of notes about the Battle of Aubers Ridge without any idea where it was supposed to go since half of the sources lump the actions under the name of Second Artois. The goal of the attacks was to, of course, push the Germans off the ridge and then once on top of the Ridge the British would advance to the south to hopefully link up with the French who would have taken over Vimy Ridge. You know the drill after that, once the armies linked up it was onto the Douai Plain, then to Namur, then to Germany, then to victory. While these goals were lofty it was understood by the British commanders that the immediate goal of the attacks was simply to provide a distraction for the Germans from the attacks by the French. The British would try out a different style of bombardment during this battle and instead of the long drawn out bombardment over days they would rely on a short bombardment and the element of surprise for their attack on the German lines. This decision wasn’t entirely based on strategy or some amazing new tactical doctrine, instead it was out of necessity due to the shortage of artillery ammunition that the British were experiencing at this point in time. There would be many instances of short bombardments being greatly successful during the war, especially in the later years, but in this case the British had some critical problems that they would not be able to overcome. First of all they only had 636 guns and they simply wouldn’t be able to provide the weight of fire necessarily to make a short bombardment work. Second they also had a huge number of shrapnel shells which, as we discussed in episode 32 with the attack at Neuve Chapelle, do a horrible job of cutting the wire in front of the German lines, let alone doing damage to the German fortifications themselves. Something like only 10% of the shells being fired were high explosive shells which would end up straight up not being enough to provide the effects necessary for the short bombardment tactic to be successful.

During the build up on both the French and British sectors the Germans quickly began to realize what was happening. Their more elevated positions gave them a good view of the area immediately behind the lines so it was completely impossible for either the British or the French to completely hide their preparations. The Germans knew, just like the French did, that their lines on Vimy Ridge were sort of the last good line of defense before the French were in the plains of Northern France so it was very important to stop the French attacks before they were able to successfully crest the top of the ridge. The Germans were at this stage still using the defensive tactic where they were holding the front line quite strongly, with as many defenders as possible stationed on the front line or right behind it. However they were beginning to slightly shift these tactics and to begin experimenting with a more defense in depth structure to defend against the attacks. This means that they would hold the front line with less men and they would counter attack as soon as possible with troops from trench lines behind the front line. They had learned how important it was to try and have a second line that was as strong as possible because it would be the most effective measure at keeping the attackers from breaking through and it would be able to hit the attackers at their weakest. Usually, when the attackers hit the second line they had moved out of the zone which was prepared by the artillery, they were often very tired from a hard bit of fighting just to get there, and their numbers had often been heavily thinned out during the attacking action. All of these factors made them very vulnerable to German counter attack. The Germans were however extremely outnumbered on Vimy ridge with just 6 German division facing the entirety of d’Urbal’s 20 divisions. However, with the advanced warning they had of the attack the Germans were able to move 6 more divisions down from Belgium to at least by close to the area of attack before the French would finally launch their attack. These troops were in an ideal position to move forward into the threatened sector when the attack began.

As I said early the attack was originally planned to start on May 1st but would be delayed until May 9th. The story of the battle will however have to wait until next week when we will find out how the French and British attacks against Vimy and Auber’s Ridges went. I wish I could say it is a great and glorious ride to victory, however it will instead turn into a long slog toward and disappointing end. That probably isn’t the best way to build up an episode so lets go with: Thank you to everybody who listened this week and I hope you will tune in next week to find out how the French and British plans are once again foiled by the Germans.