Notes on Operations 56 Division September & October 1916
NOTES on OPERATIONS of 56th (LONDON)
DIVISION on the SOMME 7.9.16 to 10.10.16.
The results of the operations carried out by the Division during September and October 1916 have led to the following deductions:-
1. Direction of Advance. To give an attack a fair chance of success it must be launched from departure trenches as nearly as possible parallel to the objectives. Complicated manoeuvres, such as a wheel or change of direction during an assault prejudice the chances of success of present-day troops.
2. Distance of departure trenches from objective. The system of departure trenches should not be nearer than 200 yards from the first objective; otherwise trenches may have to be evacuated to enable the Artillery to bombard. An evacuated trench may be occupied by the enemy; and even if it is not, it is liable to be mistaken during an assault for the enemy’s first line.
In order to ensure the success of an assault, a proper scheme of assembly trenches must be thought out, and sufficient time must be given for their construction. To enable this to be done, accurate information must be available as to the position of our own troops and trenches, and the enemy’s troops and trenches.
3. Woods. An attack through or from a wood is to be avoided, if it is possible to work round it. If the wood has been heavily shelled it is impossible to dig assembly trenches in it, and troops get disorganised directly they try to move in it.
4. Selection of Objective. The selection of objectives should be as definite as possible – i.e. they should be recognisable on the ground. Considering the heavy casualties which occur among officers, and the partially trained state of many of the N.C.O’s and men, it is seldom of any use leaving the site of the objective to the judgment of the assaulting troops.
5. Flank in the Air. Too much attention is apt to be paid to the “bogey” of the flank in the air. Commanders should never be deterred from seizing and occupying valuable ground for fear of having a flank exposed. Such a flank is comparatively easily protected, at any rate for a time, by machine or Lewis Guns, or a bombers post, and one knows from experience that it is no easy matter, and usually a costly one, to attack an enemy trench in flank. For example, the left flank of the 56th Division was entirely in the air from September 9th until the QUADRILATERAL was captured by the 6th Division on the 18th; and again (in GROPI and RANGER Trenches in T.15.d. and T.16.c.) from the night of the 20th to the 24th September. The right flank of the Division in the COMBLES, BULLY and BEEF Trenches was continually in touch with the enemy.
6. Information as to Situation. Experience has shewn that the first reports received from units and from F.O.O’s as to the position of advanced troops are generally unreliable. Air photos and air reports are the only reliable sources of information, and both are dependent on the weather. Airmen also complain that troops in the front line frequently neglect to show their positions when called on. This is due to ignorance and want of training. It is suggested that a time should be fixed at which troops in the front line should always indicate their position, on fine days by flares or mirrors, to air observers, and on dull or cloudy days by shutter or some other signal to F.O.O’s. In active operations a fixed board is dangerous as it is apt to be left on the parados when our troops advance or withdraw.
7. Air Photos and Maps. The air photos are excellent but the issue is so small that they scarcely ever reach units below brigades.
The Army, Corps, Divisions and Brigades all produce sketch maps, all of which vary considerably. A clear and reliable map is wanted, in sufficient numbers to be issued down to platoon commanders. It is of course impossible to issue sufficient maps showing daily changes on this scale. A weekly issue of a 1/10,000 map (on paper and similar in style to the GUILLEMONT Trench Map) in sufficient numbers to allow of all commanders down to battalion commander issuing them with their orders, would meet the case, provided the periodical corrections were issued on a sufficiently large scale to reach battalions and batteries. At present there are too many different maps. Fewer maps and a larger issue would improve matters.
8. Liaison with R.F.C. It would be an advantage if rather closer liaison could be established between the R.F.C. and Divisions. If the observer detailed to reconnoitre a divisional front were in personal touch with the G.S. of the division concerned, particular points about which further information is wanted could be discussed with the observer overnight.
It is understood that duplicate copies of reports to divisions by contact patrols are always dropped at Corps Headquarters. It would save unnecessary congestion of the telephone and telegraph lines if observers could state on their reports when similar reports are dropped at neighbouring divisions.
9. Barrages. All battalions have realised the importance of working close up under the creeping barrage. The simpler the task set to the Artillery, the more effective will be the barrage. The task for the Artillery is simple when the front departure trench of our own troops is parallel to the enemy’s first line trench, and not less than 200 yards from it. An enfilade creeping barrage is most effective, and should be employed whenever possible.
To avoid complications for the Artillery, it is most important after the capture of a village or wood to push troops forward well beyond it; otherwise the trees will interfere with the creeping barrage when next advance is attempted (e.g. it was difficult to arrange a good creeping barrage on the German trenches just E. of LESBOEUFS on October 7th and 8th).
The system of dividing the barrages into a creeping and standing barrage is sound; but the standing barrage must stand on something definite, such as a line of trenches, or a road known to be held. A standing barrage on an indefinite system of defended shell holes, gun-pits, and short lengths of trench, is likely to result in waste of ammunition unless very careful registration can be carried out beforehand. Under these circumstances it is better to have two creeping barrages.
An effective creeping barrage in a wood is very difficult to arrange, and unobserved bombardment by howitzers is frequently very disappointing. In spite of considerable bombardment GRAPHIC Trench in BOULEAUX WOOD was found to be almost untouched. The same cannot be said of IRISH Trench in LEUZE WOOD, which was most effectively and accurately bombarded by the German Artillery. This was partially due to the fact that IRISH Trench was originally dug by the Germans and was no doubt accurately marked on their maps.
10. Liaison with Hy Artillery. The liaison between Heavy Artillery and units of the Division is not sufficiently close. Many batteries of Heavy guns are newly raised and more than one case has occurred of our Heavy Artillery shelling our own trenches. It is quite realised that an occasionally short round is unavoidable, but the delay that occurred in discovering and stopping the offending battery is avoidable. The present procedure in cumbrous when a message from a company commander that his trenches are being shelled by our own guns has to pass through battalion, brigade, Divisional H.Q., thence from the Heavy Artillery Liaison Officer to Corps Heavy Artillery H.Q., and down through similar channels to the offending battery. It is not suggested that Liaison Officers should be multiplied, as trained officers are too valuable. I think, though, that matters would be improved whenever a heavy battery was detailed to bombard any points in the enemy’s line in close proximity to our own trenches, if that battery were placed (temporarily) under the orders of the Field Artillery Group Commander who was responsible for that sector of the front. The battery would then be in close liaison with the infantry brigade, through the Group Liaison Officer, and would have better information regarding, and access to, the best positions from which to observe.
11. Bombing Attacks. Bombing attacks should not be undertaken lightly. An unsuccessful bombing attack is very wasteful of specially trained men. They are frequently necessary in order to gain some tactically important point, and every means must then be employed to ensure the success of the operation. This means obtaining the co-operation of the Artillery, who must know the exact point the bombers are to start from, and the point they are expected to reach, and the operation must be conducted according to the time table. The bombers must work close to the barrage, and must be able to indicate their position to the supporting guns.
Stokes Gunners, Lewis Gunners and Bombers, must be trained to work together. The training of bombers in the Mills Rifle Grenade is most important.
12. Patrols. Considerable ground was made on occasions by patrols, who were ordered to work their way forward and dig themselves in. A definite “objective” for these patrols is most essential; otherwise it is most difficult to arrange a suitable defensive barrage.
13. Digging. Much ground was made at night by digging lines of trenches; and strong points, which were connected up to form a continuous trench the following night. It is of the greatest value to have a definite pattern of trench, and definite patterns of strong points, which R.E., Pioneers and Infantry are all trained to lay out and dig. An adequate supply of tracing tape is necessary.
14. Marking Tracks. In heavily shelled areas it is of importance to decide on and mark our tracks for infantry. A large supply of sign-boards painted white for these tracks should be held in readiness. If these were painted with luminous paint on both sides, one to every 50 to 100 yards would probably be sufficient, and they would be invaluable for working parties and reliefs.
15. Communications. The value of well laddered telephone communications was well demonstrated throughout.
It was impossible to find the necessary working parties to bury cables, to any great extent, but it might be possible to select a German communication trench beforehand (where sufficient exist) to ear-mark this as a cable trench; to lay the cable and fill in the trench at once. Dug-outs could be constructed along this trench which would be used first as Battalion Headquarters and then for Brigade and Divisional Headquarters as the advance progressed.
16. Communication between Coy & Bn Hdqrs. A message thrower, capable of propelling the container of a message 500x to 600x would be invaluable. It is understood that the 6th Division used a Stokes Mortar with a specially prepared projectile for this purpose. The value of such devise cannot be overestimated.
17. Dug-outs. Many German dug-outs in a partially finished condition were found in captured trenches. It would save much time and labour if frames of the standard German pattern were prepared and kept ready for use, so that the work might be continued directly the trenches were captured.
18. Code A. Practically no use was made of Code “A”. It was too complicated under the existing conditions, when the code was changed every day. It is very unlikely that the Germans could decipher the code even if messages were overheard in conditions similar to those that existed in September. If the code were changed not more frequently than once a fortnight it might be **. At present no one has sufficient confidence in the deciphering powers of the recipient to use the code at all.
Commanding 56th Division.
Head Qrs. 56th Divn.
29th October 1916.