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Historical outcome and winning Reader Solutions to CDG #56, May 2013 issue.

The May 2013 issue of Armchair General® presented the Combat Decision Game “British Rifle Brigade in World War I, 1915.” This CDG placed readers in the role of British Colonel George Handcock Thesiger, commander of 4th Battalion, the Rifle Brigade. Thesiger’s mission on the night of March 14-15, 1915, was to organize and lead 4th Battalion in a counterattack to recapture key positions in Saint Eloi taken during a German attack several hours earlier, just before dark.

The crossroads village of Saint Eloi was located near the southern shoulder of the Ypres Salient, a 10-mile-wide by 6-mile-deep eastward bulge in the front line centered on the town of Ypres, Belgium. The terrain within the salient was mostly flat and open with a few scattered hills and small rises (generally 40-60 feet high) that provided excellent visibility for artillery observers and extensive fields of fire for machine guns. Saint Eloi sat on a 50-foot-high rise, and immediately south of the village was “the Mound,” a 75-foot-high conical hill formed from brickyard debris.

When the Germans captured Saint Eloi, they not only penetrated British front-line trenches and seized an important crossroads, they also gained vital high ground from which to dominate the surrounding area. If 4th Battalion failed to retake the village, the entire British defense line in the salient’s southern shoulder would be at risk of collapse.


The key factor in World War I counterattacks when attempting to regain lost positions was time – it was vital to strike back as quickly as possible before the enemy could reorganize forces and consolidate gains. Any delay would give the opponent valuable time to strengthen fortifications, replenish ammunition supplies, and emplace machine guns and artillery forward observers.

Thesiger had to launch his battalion counterattack as soon as possible to capitalize on speed, surprise and cover of darkness. Unfortunately, his night counterattack lacked artillery support, and although the brigade commander, Brigadier General C.G. Fortescue, had indicated that other brigade units might eventually offer reinforcement, Thesiger knew he could not delay the counterattack while awaiting that possibility.

Thesiger decided to deploy A and C companies in a frontal attack against Saint Eloi, send D Company to strike the western flank trenches, and hold B Company in reserve (COURSE OF ACTION TWO: FRONT AND FLANK ATTACK). Shortly after 4 a.m. on March 15, 4th Battalion advanced along the Voormezeele-Saint Eloi road under cover of darkness. A half-hour later, D company veered south and struck the enemy trench line. Catching the Germans while they were still disorganized from their earlier attack, D Company quickly recaptured the position.

A and C companies ran into stiff resistance when they reached Saint Eloi at 4:45 a.m. A series of street barricades and strongpoints in buildings slowed the attackers, prompting Thesiger to commit B Company at 5:15 a.m. Although the battalion finally recaptured Saint Eloi, the Germans beat back the 4th’s repeated attacks against the Mound. When daylight arrived, giving German artillery observers on the Mound visibility to call in accurate artillery fire, Thesiger halted further attacks and ordered his companies to hold fast on the ground they had already regained.

The battalion suffered over 100 casualties in the partially successful attack: 34 killed in action (including six officers), 63 wounded and six missing. Thesiger was promoted to brigadier general in May 1915 and was given command of 2d Infantry Brigade. Four months later, on September 27, he was killed by German artillery fire during the Battle of Loos, France, while serving as acting major general in command of 9th (Scottish) Division. The remains of George Handcock Thesiger were never recovered, and his name is among the 20,610 listed on the Loos memorial to the missing.


ACG judges based their selections for winning Reader Solutions and those receiving honorable mention on submissions that chose COURSE OF ACTION ONE: BATTALION ATTACK or those whose explanations demonstrated a solid understanding of the key principles of a World War I counterattack. (See “After Action Report,” p. 64.) Although Thesiger did not choose this plan, which entailed striking immediately and with the full strength of the battalion, it would have offered him the best chance to overpower Saint Eloi’s German defenders and would have allowed him to make the maximum effort as soon as possible – capitalizing on mass and momentum – against the village’s dominant terrain feature, the Mound. The trenches running east and west of the Mound were of only secondary importance since if the battalion had recaptured the Mound the trench positions would have been untenable.

The plan Thesiger chose, COURSE OF ACTION TWO: FRONT AND FLANK ATTACK, proved too weak to allow the battalion to retake both Saint Eloi and the Mound. D Company’s successful assault and capture of the western trench was largely irrelevant – indeed, it was counterproductive since it drained one-fourth of the battalion’s strength from the main attack to seize the village, the crossroads, and most importantly the Mound. Likewise, initially holding B Company in reserve served no useful purpose and unnecessarily delayed the unit’s commitment to combat at the place where it was most needed.

COURSE OF ACTION THREE: DOUBLE ENVELOPMENT fragmented and weakened the battalion attack. Although this plan likely would have resulted in the capture of both the western and eastern trenches, it could not guarantee that the most important positions – the village and the Mound – would subsequently fall. Moreover, this option split 4th Battalion into two elements separated by strong enemy positions, thereby putting it at risk of being defeated in detail. Although the historical course of action (COA Two) resulted in only partial success, this plan (COA Three) likely would have ended in total failure.

And now for excerpts from the winning Reader Solutions to “British Rifle Brigade in World War I, 1915.”*

DEETLEFS DU TOIT, SOUTH AFRICA: “Timing is everything. Strike with maximum force, executing violently and suddenly with shock effect. Occupy and secure key positions speedily and dig in properly. Redistribute ammunition, evacuate wounded and reinforcements to follow.”

DONALD K. GILLEO, ARIZONA:“Keep the battalion together to maintain command and control. Once contact is made, relentlessly push forward using follow-up companies to reinforce as needed to maintain the momentum. Seize the high ground and defend against counterattack.”

CAPTAIN MARK A. LICHAK, AFGHANISTAN: “COA One offers the best chance to capitalize on mass, speed and surprise. The main objective is to seize ‘the Mound’ that dominates the surrounding area. This plan focuses our battalion’s numbers on a narrow portion of the enemy’s line.”

Thank you to everyone who participated in this CDG. Now turn to page 54 and test your tactical decision-making skills with CDG #58, “World War I in Africa, 1914.” This battle places you in German East Africa, where you will play the role of German army Lieutenant Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, commander of the colony’s Schutztruppe. Your mission is to lead the Schutztruppe’s German and native African Askari infantrymen in an attack against a much larger British amphibious force that has invaded the colony by landing near the important port of Tanga. Use the CDG map and form on pages 57 and 58 to explain your solution and mail, email or fax it to Armchair General by August 30, 2013. Winners will be announced in the January 2014 issue, but those eager to read the historical outcome and analysis can log on to armchairgeneral .com/cdg after September 3, 2013.

*Editor’s Note: For each Combat Decision Game, ACG typically receives numerous Reader Solutions that have selected the course of action that ACG judges have deemed the best COA for that CDG. However, our judges are required to choose winners and those earning an honorable mention from submissions whose explanations, in the judges’ opinion, best reflect an understanding of the principles and key points of the CDG’s tactical situation.


Originally published in the September 2013 issue of Armchair General.