YOU lead a battalion of British infantrymen in a daring night attack against German defenders in the Ypres Salient.
The Great War that broke out in Europe in August 1914 began as a “war of movement.” German armies swept i ern France, pushing back Belgian, French and British defenders. Yet the seemingly unstoppable tide of German troops was brought to an abrupt halt at the September 5-12, 1914, Battle of the Marne, hailed by French leaders as the “Miracle of the Marne.” Armies on both sides began to dig in.
For the next two months, the belligerents engaged in a “race to the sea,” creating an extended line of trenches anchored on the North Sea coast near Nieuport, Belgium, and eventually running hundreds of miles south and east to the Swiss border. By 1915, as both sides strengthened and improved their trench lines, the war of movement degenerated into the bloody stalemate of trench warfare. With no exposed enemy flanks to maneuver against, the fighting was dominated by costly frontal attacks in which thousands of soldiers were killed by artillery and machine-gun fire for the gain of only a few hundred yards – if the attacks succeeded at all.
Yet even seemingly small gains could be extremely important to ensuring that frontline positions remained strong enough to prevent an enemy breakthrough or to serve as vital launching points from which to assault enemy trenches. When one side lost a key position in an enemy attack, it typically organized and launched a rapid counterattack to attempt to recapture the position before the opposing side could solidify its defenses there or use it to facilitate further attacks.
Armchair General® takes you back to the night of March 14-15, 1915, in the southern portion of the Ypres Salient in Belgium, where you will play the role of British Colonel George Handcock Thesiger, commander of 4th Battalion, the Rifle Brigade. Your mission is to lead your infantrymen to recapture key positions at Saint Eloi taken several hours ago, just before dark, in a German attack. The loss of this vital high ground in an otherwise generally flat region is a heavy blow to British defenders. Your men must quickly retake the Saint Eloi positions to re-establish a solid defense and prevent further German attacks from collapsing the British line in the salient’s southern sector.
In the sector of the Allied front line held by British forces, the focus of combat in early 1915 is the Ypres Salient. Formed in late 1914 as British and German forces jockeyed for position during the “race to the sea,” the salient is a 10- mile-wide, 6-mile-deep eastward bulge in the front line centered on the town of Ypres, Belgium. The terrain is mostly flat and open, but a few scattered hills and small rises (generally 40-60 feet high) provide unobstructed visibility over great distances.
These high points offer significant advantages: they make defensive lines stronger; artillery observers positioned there can direct accurate fire onto opposing trenches; and attacks have a greater chance to succeed when supported by machine guns, mortars and artillery observers located on higher terrain. For these reasons, the fighting in the Ypres Salient has been dominated by each side’s attempts to seize and hold the high ground.
Saint Eloi, located near the southern shoulder of the salient, is one of the key points. Sitting atop a rise of about 50 feet, this small village consists of a few stone houses clustered around an intersection whose roads are important routes for moving troops, vehicles, weapons and supplies in this section of the salient. Therefore whoever occupies Saint Eloi also controls the area’s road network.
Immediately south of the village is another dominant terrain feature called “the Mound,” a 75-foot-high conical hill created by piled-up debris from a local brickyard. The Mound’s summit offers artillery observers excellent long-range visibility. Extending east and west from the Mound is a line of secondary trenches, but since they are not intended as main front-line trenches, they are not as heavily fortified as the armies’ principal defensive positions.
At 5 p.m. today, March 14, German troops of 23d Royal Bavarian Infantry Regiment launched an attack aimed at Saint Eloi. After exploding a huge underground mine beneath British positions, the Germans broke through the British main front-line trench, moved 400 yards north, seized Saint Eloi and the Mound, and occupied the secondary trench line. The strength of the attacking German force appears to be about a battalion (800-900) of soldiers armed with M98 bolt-action rifles, hand grenades and machine guns, supported by mortars and artillery.
Given the prominent location of Saint Eloi, taking it back from the Germans as quickly as possible is of vital importance. If the village remains in German hands, British defenses in the entire southern sector could collapse. Thus shortly after Saint Eloi fell to the enemy, your battalion received the mission to counterattack and recapture it. Since darkness has already fallen, you will lead a night attack.
Your unit, 4th Battalion, the Rifle Brigade, is now in a reserve position near Voormezeele, just northwest of Saint Eloi. Organized in four infantry companies (A, B, C and D) of about 200 men each, your 850 soldiers are armed with No. 1 MkIII Lee-Enfield bolt-action rifles. All of your riflemen are highly trained in delivering rapid and accurate fire from their Lee-Enfields.
Since the British army does not yet issue hand grenades, your soldiers have improvised with “jam tin bombs.” These makeshift bombs are made of cast-off ration tins filled with explosives and scrap metal ignited by a lit fuse, yet they are generally effective – and vital weapons – in trench fighting. Unfortunately your unit does not possess machine guns, nor does it have the support of mortars or artillery. Your riflemen must rely on speed, surprise and cover of darkness to make their attack a success.
You have gathered your company commanders and the battalion staff at your command post to brief them on the plans you are considering for this night counterattack. Since you must strike the Germans as soon as possible, you immediately commence your briefing.
“Chaps,” you begin, “you all know the situation and are aware that higher headquarters has ordered us to set it right by going out tonight and recapturing the Saint Eloi positions. I will now brief you on three possible courses of action I have developed for our counterattack against the Germans. Afterward, I’d like to hear any feedback or suggestions you might have.”
Course of Action One: BATTALION ATTACK
“The first option I’m considering,” you explain, “is to go right at the enemy down the Voormezeele-Saint Eloi road with the full battalion. A and B companies will be in the lead, followed closely by C and D companies. Our objective will be to seize the village and its crossroads and then press on to capture the Mound. If we are successful, this will split the enemy defenses and force the Germans to retreat.”
Lieutenant Stopford-Sackville, A Company’s commander, replies, “Colonel, by running the entire battalion up the road to Saint Eloi, I fear we may be giving the Germans one massive target for their machine guns in the secondary trenches east and west of the village – not to mention their artillery and mortars. They can hardly miss such a large target, and if their fire halts our lead companies, our following ones will be trapped on the road.”
Major Harrington, B Company’s commander, disagrees. “Lieutenant, darkness will make it difficult or impossible for the enemy machine-gunners and artillery forward observers to see our battalion in time to concentrate their fire on us before we are on top of them. This plan capitalizes on speed and surprise; moreover, by attacking with the entire battalion, we have the advantage of mass.”
Course of Action Two: FRONT AND FLANK ATTACK
“My next course of action,” you continue, “is to hit the Germans from the front and side simultaneously. A and C companies will attack down the Voormezeele-Saint Eloi road to overrun the village, while D Company assaults and clears the secondary trench on the enemy’s west flank. A and C companies will then press on to the Mound and hit it from the front, while D Company follows and attacks the Mound’s flank. B Company will remain in reserve to reinforce these attacks as necessary.”
Captain Mostyn-Pryce, D Company’s commander, looks concerned. “Colonel,” he says, “although I realize that speed, surprise and darkness will help my riflemen in their flank attack, we will still face an unknown number of entrenched German troops backed up by machine guns. I have great confidence in my lads, but I wonder if one company is sufficient to capture and clear the trench line?”
“Captain,” interjects Major Harrington, “if your attack stalls, my B Company can quickly reinforce it, and then together we’ll clear the trench line and move against the Mound. By keeping a company in reserve, this plan gives the battalion the flexibility to react to any difficulties encountered by the front or flank attacks.”
Course of Action Three: DOUBLE ENVELOPMENT
“My final plan,” you conclude, “is to attack both flanks at the same time in a double envelopment of the entire enemy-held position. A and C companies will move north of Saint Eloi, skirting the high ground upon which the village sits, and then attack and clear the enemy trench line east of the Mound. Meanwhile, B and D companies will attack and clear the trench line to the west. Once we capture both trench lines, the Germans will find their positions at Saint Eloi and the Mound untenable. They will have no choice but to retreat.”
Major King, your battalion second in command, adds his thoughts. “Colonel, seizing both trench lines may put the Germans in an untenable position, but it could just as likely leave our battalion in an equally vulnerable situation. Our two companies to the east will be separated from and have no direct contact with our two companies to the west. Therefore the enemy will occupy a possibly strong central position between the main elements of our split battalion. With no way to reinforce either element, we could be inviting the Germans to defeat our battalion in detail should they mass against either force.”
Captain Selby-Smith, C Company’s commander, offers his input. “Major, I think this plan gives the Germans the worst of it. Our two elements will be separated only if they don’t press on and take the Mound, but surely this plan implies that they will do just that and thereby link up. Once the companies have captured and cleared the trenches, we can attack the Mound from two directions at once, virtually ensuring we take the dominating high ground. Any Germans left at Saint Eloi will then be ‘in the bag’ as our prisoners.”
Having heard your subordinates’ comments on the three courses of action, you send the commanders back to prepare their units for the imminent night attack. “Gentlemen,” you announce as they depart your command post, “I will make my decision and issue battalion orders forthwith. Good luck!”
Regardless of which plan you choose, you are confident your riflemen will gallantly uphold the honor of the Rifle Brigade.
What is your decision, Colonel Thesiger?
Andrew H. Hershey holds a doctorate in medieval history from the University of London. He contributes to the “USMC Gazette” and is a four-time winner of its Tactical Decision Game design contests. He also designs World War II tactical-level wargames for Heat of Battle and Le Franc Tireur.
Originally published in the May 2013 issue of Armchair General.