In Basil Liddell Hart's 1930 account of the Third Battle of Ypres, a tearful, anonymous Staff Officer reportedly uttered words which have entered the historiography of the battle:
Good God, did we really send men to fight in that?
First World War generals and their Staff Officers have a reputation for failing to comprehend the conditions their men were fighting in. They are also accused of failing to adopt to the reality of warfare on the Western Front. All too often in discussions, the Lions led by Donkeys attitude prevails which has been reinforced by Blackadder's `General Melchett'. These views came to dominate public perceptions of the Western Front in the 1960s.
Just how accurate is this view? Lessons from the Mud questions this perception of uncaring generals incapable of adopting new methods capable of addressing trench warfare.
Paul Knight has, for the first time, transcribed in their entirety a unique collection of reports compiled for one general of one division's experiences in two battles during the Third Battle of Ypres. Compiled within days of each battle, these provide an authentic voice from the trenches. The views expressed are free and frank, with personal analysis of battle plans, tactics and weapon systems. They are written in such a way as to question the class-dominated deferential view of the British Army of 1917.
General Sir Hugh Jeudwine commanded the 55th Division from January 1916. His command of the division was highly regarded and was placed in the top third of the British Expeditionary Force. Jeudwine was neither a Donkey nor a Melchett. He also appears to have been genuinely liked. After the war, he became Inspector General of the Territorial Army and Honoury Colonel to one of the division's artillery regiments. On his and Lady Jeudwine's death, their ashes were placed in the division's memorial in Liverpool's Anglican Cathedral.
The 55th (West Lancashire) Division of the Territorial Force had its pre-war headquarters in Liverpool. Its unit were recruited from Warrington through to Barrrow in Furness. In common with the rest of the Territorial Force, the division was originally formed in 1908 for Home Defence. When the War Office asked for volunteers in August 1914, all units in the division volunteered and they started to deploy to France, Flanders and Gallipoli from late-1914.
The division was reformed in France in January 1916. It retained a strong affiliation with Lancashire which Jeudwine exploited to create a corporate identity around the Lancashire Rose. In 1916 and 1917, the divsion fought on the Somme, at Third Ypres and during the German counter-attack during Cambrai. During the German Spring Offensive of April 1918, the division held the line at Givenchy and has been credited with saving the British Army. One of the division's two memorials are in Givenchy. At the end of the year, the division went on the offensive to advance fifty miles into Belgium.
55th Division attacked twice during the Third Battle of Ypres, at Pilckem Ridge (31 July 1917) and at Messine Road (20 September 1917). After each attack, Jeudwine collected `Narratives' from his men. These range from formal reports from Commanding Officers to Private soldier's handwritten memoires on a sheet of paper torn from a notepad.
These Narratives offer a fascinating, first-hand account of two major actions written within days of the battle. Although the Narratives have been used before, this is the first time they have been published in their entirety.
In the Narratives record and bring back to life:
- The tension of waiting for the order to go `over the top'.
- The last known moments of men whose fates are otherwise recorded on the Menin Gate or in a CWGC cemetery.
- Long forgotten actions around German strong points, in their trenches, silence machine guns and capture artillery positions.
- The use of tactical theory and the difficulties of practical application.
- The difficulties experienced in moving forward artillery, machine guns, trench mortars and communications necessary to support the infantry while they consolidated their gains.
- Frank and open debate about the benefits or otherwise of different weapon systems.
- Analysis of the wearing of Other Ranks uniforms by officers to reduce their casualties - there was no effect.
- Details of equipment carried by the troops. This included carrying a second waterbottle, which was considered to be a very good idea, and also the need for more spades to be carried - and more weight - which goes against the idea of an unnecessarily overload Tommy.
These Narratives were written by ordinary men, soldiers or officers, and this may be the only surviving record of their thoughts on these momentous events.
This was also an opportunity for commanders to raise concerns about failures and for them to be addressed. The Artillery, for example, complained that the tracks cleared through the battlefield was insufficiently wide for the guns to move forward quickly enough to support the infantry.
Most importantly, the Narratives show a high degree of self-assessment which allowed General Jeudwine, his Commanders and Staff Officers to take account of difficulties experienced on 31 July 1917 and implement changes for their second attack six weeks later. 31 July 1917 was a qualified success, with German counter-attacks regaining some of their lost ground. Ammunition resupply problems were the main reason given for the division's withdrawal. On 20 September 1917, no German counter-attacks succeeded. Suggestions to rectify the ammunition resupply problems had been listened to and applied. Lessons from the Mud had been learnt.