THE ROYAL ENGINEERS JOURNAL. VOLUME XIV.
JULY TO DECEMBER, 1911. CHATHAM:
ROYAL ENGINEERS INSTITUTE.
AGENTS AND PRINTERS: W & J. MACKAY & CO., LTD
ROYAL ENGINEERS IN CO-OPERATION WITH OTHER ARMS.
By Brig.-General F.C. Heath, C.B., Inspector of Royal Engineers.
Reprinted by kind permission of the Secretary, Aldershot Military Society.
I have been asked by General Lawson to talk to you to-day on the employment of Royal Engineers with other arms and kindred subjects. This I am glad to do, because, whatever we may have been accused of in the past, I feel sure you will bear me witness that we are now as keen as any to come out of our shell of exclusiveness and work in with other arms.
The role of the Royal Engineers is to "help on the show," and this, of course, they cannot do unless they know and thoroughly appreciate what other arms want, but besides this those other arms must realize the nature of the assistance that can be given, lest there be danger of their not asking for what they can get or of making impossible demands; so you see, we must know one another and more than this, the knowledge must be so intimate that help is given, or assistance asked, as a process of intuition. We cannot afford to wait until the time of active service to learn these things, as then everything must go as if by clockwork.
My subject is a dry one I fear, but I trust it may help us to think out these matters.
I daresay most of you remember the days when a field company did not form part of the peace organization of a division, indeed, it is only some few years since all that was changed. In former days it usually happened that a field company was thrown at a G.O.C.'s head just as he was starting for a field day, with the obvious result that he and his staff uttered a bit of bad language and wondered how they were meant to use those d-d sappers.
But now that has all changed, and every division has, you know, as part of it a little battalion of Royal Engineers, consisting of two field companies and one divisional telegraph company, commanded by a lieut.-colonel. The field companies never change stations; the lieut.-colonel usually commands them for four years, and the other officers are with them for not less than three years. They are entirely under the General of Division and his staff for training, so you see it is now their fault if these engineers are not trained to suit their requirements.
I am thankful to say that this new organization has worked a very great change, we are now being taught something, and the uses to which we can be put are being thought out and considered.
Now, if I can, I should like to enlarge on this matter and explain to those who have not thought out the subject some of the many ways in which we should be able to help for the common good.
To do this we will follow out an imaginary campaign. The war begins with a concentration at an oversea port or elsewhere, such as took place at Alexandria, for instance, after the bombardment of 1882. In this particular instance, the civil population had fled and there was not local skilled labour to be had. Now, on paper, a concentration at a well-found port seems simple, and, perhaps looking at if from outside, it is so, but it is an extraordinary fact, human nature perhaps, that no one ever seems satisfied with what he has got. The landing stages are not convenient for landing some particular kind s of stores and must be altered; special landing stages are wanted for troops, so that stores and troops should not get mixed up; the departmental staff find excellent sheds to accommodate their stores, but the doors and openings are all wrong, railway sidings have to be brought up to them; water must be laid on to the enclosure selected by the veterinary officer for his remounts; the medical officer and headquarter clerks vie with one another in their urgent demands for shelving, the one for his bottles and other for his stationery. Believe me, the unfortunate R.E. get inundated with requisitions of all sorts; some of the greatest importance, other only of importance because of the high quarters from which they originate; an active A.D.C. is sometimes a terror in these matters.
Now, in the early stages, just at the rush of things the only R.E. landed are probably the field companies and the only source from which tradesmen would be forthcoming to tackle these innumerable jobs. I want to tell you all this, because I have heard it state that skilled tradesmen are not required in a field company, that a a less expensive individual would suffice. Well, I may be prejudiced, but when I look up my journals and realize what calls were made on our tradesmen whenever a force was halted, either at the landing stage, on the line of march, or on the occupation of an enemy's town, such as Cairo, I am appalled with the thought of how blue the atmosphere would have been had tradesmen not existed. Even in the occupation of a friendly town it is wonderful how little accommodating the town seems to be, and how particular G.O.C's and C.O.'s become. But it is so natural that all these requisitions should be met, that no one waits to enquire what they entail to the R.E., and then they consist of such a multitude of small, though essential, services of which no record is kept, that no wonder when official histories are written no mention is made of them. I do not mean that we want this recognition, but what I wish to point out is the fact that when we are told that we do not want tradesmen, we find it difficult to prove the necessity to those who have not had the experience of what is expected of us in these matters.
Well then, from what I have told you, I hope you will admit we want tradesmen and that you will agree that a nominal 150 in a company is none too many.
Now married men amongst you who are not in occupation of Government quarters and have to pay for their own repairs will no doubt remember their economical spirit getting a shock when it is a case of repair, a simple burst pipe for instance, the plumber with a least two assistants turning up for the job. Well, I am not prepared to say that both assistants are absolutely necessary, but certainly one is, and you bless your stars in thinking that after all he or they are only labourers and therefore cheap. So you will readily understand that it is not economical to use any of these 150 skilled tradesmen as assistants, for assistant's work unskilled labour is the cheapest, and the more there is of this within reason, the more skilled work you will get out of your 150 sappers.
Perhaps some of you have guessed what I am leading up to; it is, of course, the necessity for working parties. So when you are halted at the base, on the line of march, or elsewhere, where there is work to be done, let us have what labour you can spare ungrudgingly, because what work is done, is done for you, not for ourselves. In foreign conscript armies, you know there are pioneer battalions, these I have always understood to be a self-contained units, i.e., a units consisting of the necessary skilled tradesmen plus necessary unskilled labour. Until we have our own labour tacked on to our field companies like this, I feel we shall be obliged to borrow. In Egypt and South Africa we were allowed to hire natives, and in this way formed little pioneer battalions for ourselves, but that was exceptional.
Up to now I have been assuming that the army is more or less at rest, when the field companies would not, perhaps, be so closely associated with their divisions, but would, perhaps, be concentrated for, what I call, war works services, such services as I have mentioned above and those under the following six headings, which will probably appear in our new training manual, viz.:-
(1). The improvement of the piers, wharfs, derricks, pier and wharf accommodation, exits from the docks, etc.
(2). The provision of suitable entraining accommodation.
(3). The improvement and making of roads in the docks and town, and the marking of the routes to camps and depots.
(4). The provision of water supply and sanitary services for billets and camps.
(5). The conversion of such buildings as may be required into hospitals, stores, sick lines for animals.
(6). The erection and maintainance of suitable telegraphic or telephonic communication.
Plenty of work you see for the engineer companies and their tradesmen.
But the army is now to move; each division must draw in it engineers and move off complete, the engineer work at the base being left to the line of communication troops. The march begins, in the early stages out of reach of the enemy, when the principal duty for the field engineer will be that common to everyone else, viz.:- to do the marches with the minimum of fatigue to men and horses, and it will much assist in this if, at the end of the day's march, the force can go straight into a fully prepared billeting area or other accommodation.
In small ways there is a good deal to be done before a billeting area, camping, or bivouac ground can be said to be prepared. Water supply arrangements have to be looked into; the municipal authorities can often help a good deal in this matter if given time and treated with tact and consideration; then there are always gaps to be made through hedges and walls, gateways to be enlarged, swampy places to be improved, etc.; so you see if you want to find everything comfortable for you when you march I, I would advise you to keep in touch with the C.R.E. and get him to make an early reconnaissance with our staff officer, and, above all, get your field companies on the ground and at work as early as possible; if the enemy is not in close proximity, it might often help to send on a field company well in advance of the column, so as to be on the spot several hours before the troops arrive with the engineer officers, employed on reconnaissance, well in front of these again, so that they may meet the company with a detailed scheme and lose no time in getting the R.E. to work. I want here to impress upon you all the supreme importance of engineer reconnaissance; if you think a little, you will see how much depends on this. Before you can commence work, you must first know what you have got to do. You have to get the necessary tools and materials on the spot, think out the best way to do the work, the number of men required to do it, etc., and all this takes time, and unless the problem is cut and dried by the time and workmen arrive, there will be waste of time and much cussing and swearing, marching and counter-marching before the particular tradesmen with the particular tools and materials they require meet one another at the desired spot. If you want us to do good work, you must help us to look ahead, the more we can do this, the more efficient you will find us. You must give us the very earliest intimation. This seems common-sense, but yet, strange to say, there are occasions when this has bot been given, and we have been expected to get work done as if we had a magician's wand at our disposal.
Engineer reconnaissance takes many forms. In my opinion, and I hope it will be clearly laid down in our new training manual, engineer officers should always accompany the general staff reconnaissance of a position or of a river or pass, or one made preparatory to a march or for the purpose of selecting billets, camps, etc. The duty of the engineer officer will be to study the best method in which engineers may be employed, so as to enable the commander of the engineers to advise on technical matters. It is important that reports, giving the details of engineering work required should be sent from the cavalry to the army in rear, from the advanced guard to the main body, and from the army to the lines of communication. It is only by the early receipt of such information that the engineers with each portion of the force will be able to carry out the necessary work efficiently and promptly.
I remember not so very long ago at a staff ride, or divisional maneuver, it being a question of the passage of a river, staff officers were sent out to reconnoitre suitable places to cross. When these came in, the engineer officer was informed that he was to make bridges at the places specified. He had then to make his own technical reconnaissance, and, at least at one place, found the technical difficulties so great that the general staff officer had to go out again and find another place. I merely mention this to show how much time is really saved by the staff taking an engineer officer with them on this sort of reconnaissance.
Then there are reconnaissances in attack and defence. I will again quote them from what I hope may appear in our training manual shortly to be issued:-
"Prior to, and during, an attack, the attention of the engineers should be specially directed towards such points as will facilitate the advance of the other arms. Reconnaissances will, therefore, be carried out with a view to ascertaining what obstacles will be met with, and how they can be crossed or destroyed, what improvements in communications and approaches are necessary, the work required to strengthen covering positions, and the best arrangement of telegraphic or other means of communication."
So you see there is a good deal in this matter of reconnaissance for the engineer officer, and I trust that those responsible for training will see to it that we do not neglect this important work.
On manoeuvres, etc., it is one of my duties to watch the work of the engineers. When I meet a field company, my usual remark is "Well what are you doing?" and I am sorry to say that the usual answer is "Oh, the usual thing, nothing; we have got no orders." I am afraid that I then get angry and want to know why there are five engineer officers on the roadside doing nothing. I want to know why the officers are not ahead looking out to see whether they cannot do some useful work. If there is nothing better for them to do, they could with advantage visit farms, sheds, etc., and see whether there is barbed wire and what tools can be got in case these are wanted later. And here I may remind you that an engineer company carries only some 108 pickaxes and each infantry battalion only some 155 pickaxes, rather more shovels in each case; no materials, such as barbed wire or timber, are carried. So you see if entrenching is to be seriously taken in hand, it will be necessary to collect more picks and shovels from elsewhere, not to mention wire for entanglements and timber for overhead cover, and for these the engineer officer or others must search.
Well, we are now beginning to approach the enemy; you know it, because you find marching not so simple, the enemy is trying to delay you with obstructions, broken bridges, etc. if your cavalry is in front of you and the engineer officers with the field troops accompanying it have done their duty, they will have sent back precise details of the nature of the obstructions, broken bridges, etc., which would enable the C.R.E. to make his plans and get to work as soon as you get him to the spot. His men have to march remember, and if they are far behind in the column you will have difficulty in getting them to the front and, when you have done so the men will have had a forced march, so to speak, and you will not get such good work out of them than as if they had been with the advance guard. Incidentally, I might mention that some French authorities make a great point of relieving the sapper of as much weight as possible when on the march so that he may be fresh to undertake work when required. My own view is that during the march the greater part, if not all, of your engineers should be with the advanced guard, but, in every case, please take your C.R.E. into your confidence before your operation orders are got out and make him responsible for the distribution of his units. He should know best what men and tools are required for the job in hand. R.E. field companies are small units and take up but little road space, particularly if the pontoons are relegated to the 2nd line transport, where they would usually be unless there is a prospect of having to bridge a river; if there is work for the engineers, it will be in front and usually, until the engineers have done their work, the column will not be able to advance. It is so easy to get your engineers off the road and out of the way if they are at the front and not wanted there, but it is quite another thing to get them quickly to the front from the rear.
We will now imagine that you have got your sappers to the broken bridge and are fuming to see it repaired. On manoeuvres these things are simple, a piece of wood is put over the supposed gap and after a specified time the bridge is judged by the umpires to be repaired. This is a bad lesson. Bridges are not so easily repaired, for remember the spirit may be willing but the material absent; nice mast-like fir trees do not always grow on the spot. I suppose generally it would come to ripping up a floor of some neighbouring houses, which might be a little way off. And this is a point I want to make. Earlier in this lecture I asked you to help us with labour, and now I want you to realize that we shall often require transport also. Material will have to be brought in from a distance, planks and joists for bridge repairing, barbed wire, tools, etc., when putting a position in a state of defence, so do not grudge transport if we ask for it and you can spare it, it will be used in your interest.
You know, of course, that every field company has pontoons with it capable of bridging a 25-yard span to carry ordinary wheeled traffic, but it is not every river that is suitable for this class of bridge,, there must be depth of water to float the pontoon for instance, and then it is not always advisable to tie up your pontoons so to speak, I mean use a pontoon bridge in preference to repairing a broken bridge, because the loss of your pontoons may be serious to you if there is a river to cross later when in touch with the enemy.
I am not certain that the tactical value of pontoons is always appreciated. Two year ago you know the manoeuvres hung on the passage of the Thames. I had hoped to see pontoon bridges freely used and troops crossing at unforeseen places as a surprise to the enemy (a 25-yard bridge could have been thrown in some 15 to 20 minutes anywhere), instead of this, it seemed to me that commanding officers preferred to wait until the ordinary masonry bride had been repaired, forgetting that its position was accurately known to the enemy, who in real warfare would have kept the defile well under artillery fire. Pontoons are horsed with six horses in war, so can go cross country.
We are now in touch with the enemy, and the dispositions for attack are made, but not until after reconnaissance. On manoeuvres this consists of counting red flags or observing lines of men on the slope of a hill supposed to be hidden away in invisible trenches. Now, of course, Gentlemen, you realize that the real thing is very different. i would just like to quote to you what they think of this abroad. Colonel Polyanski, in the February, 1909, number of the Injenerni Jurnal, says:-
"Reconnaissance or scouting in the attack is, properly speaking, a duty which belongs to cavalry, but such are the conditions of modern war, that it has become impossible for the cavalry to deal with all questions which have to be answered before the plan of attack can be decided upon. The modern arrangements for the fortification of a position are so complicated and reconnaissance is rendered so difficult by means of masking and the use of dummy works, that note but engineer specialists can understand from long distances the intention and character of the various fieldworks with which the enemy may have added to the strength of his position.
"That special engineer reconnaissance is necessary, first became evident during the Russo-Japanese War. In the month of September, 1904, when attack operations were in contemplation, it was decided to form engineer reconnaissance detachments, and these were recruited from among the officers of the engineer and sapper units."
This is a matter which hitherto has not been much studied. I must confess that I see difficulties under peace conditions, but I should like you to realize the necessity and try and train your engineers accordingly.
The reconnaissance having been made, the orders for attack are got out. At recent manoeuvres it has been the practice to attach a field company to each of the leading brigades but we must be careful not to adopt this as a hard and fast rule. Engineers must be distributed in accordance with the probable requirements, and I venture to think that in all cases the C.R.E. should be made responsible for the distribution after being made fully acquainted with the conditions, and that, even after distribution, the C.R.E. should still keep in touch with his command and, should circumstances change, advise a redistribution. For instance, the G.O.C. might suddenly decide during an action to have a position prepared to all back upon, or a series of bridges might be required on a flank, in fact, anything might suddenly arise to make it necessary to withdraw the field companies from the brigades, so brigadiers should remember that at any moment they may be deprived of their engineers. Perhaps some might say "Well, I do not think that will matter much, for I do not see what use they can be to me in the attack." Unfortunately, manoeuvres are not quite the real thing, or I venture to think those brigadiers would soon change their tune. Even on manoeuvres I have seen a brigadier purple in the face because, through some mistake in orders, his field company had been left with the 2nd line transport; the brigadier had got into a village and would have given his eyes for engineers to make loopholes for him blow down a few inconvenient walls, construct a few barricades, etc., but he had left them behind and got turned out of his village; and I was pleased, for it was a good lesson.
Gentlemen, even if you do not know what to do with your engineers, for goodness sake have them well to the front; you never know when you may want the gun-cotton and crowbars.
I know that in the stress of manoeuvres, when everything goes about ten times as fast as it would in war, the unfortunate brigadier is kept at the end of his telephone and has little time to think of the accessories which do not count on manoeuvres. I do not know whether you will think me right, but I tell our people it is their own fault if they do not get employed. It should be their business to help the brigadier, and they can best do this by keeping in touch with events. In my opinion, the major commanding the field company temporarily allotted to a brigade should be with the brigadier, and, of his four officers, at least two should be out to the front looking out opportunities for being useful; the artillery are hung up at a boggy place, a few planks and baulks would make all the difference; guns cannot get to an otherwise favourable position in a wood for want of a road being cut into it; the flank of the artillery position is much exposed, a suitable building exists there which, if put in a state of defence, would make for safety; the colonel of No.1 Battalion sees his men hard pressed, he wants suitable rallying points formed, or a bridge blown up to stop the pursuit of the enemy, or a partially destroyed bridge repaired, to enable him to get up his ammunition and machine guns; obstacles removed; captured positions made strong, etc.; in fact, there are innumerable jobs, big and small, where the engineers can be of use. I hope that in our training manual about to be issued, the duties of the R.E. in the attack will be laid down as follows:-
(i.). Assisting the various arms to cross rivers, streams, difficult country, etc.
(ii.). Strengthening ground won, and special points, to help the resistance against a counter-attack, or to serve as pivots of manoeuvre.
(iii.). The close reconnaissance of an occupied position.
(iv.). Removing or destroying obstacles prior to the final assault.
(v.). Improving and marking communications
(vi.) The erection of observatories.
(vii.). Water supply.
(viii.). Fighting when required.
But again let me remind you that unless these things are practiced in peace, they will not be carried out intuitively in war. We want to be so much in touch with you, that you should get all these aids to your advance without your having to ask for them, so to speak.
Perhaps I might here be allowed to make a few remarks as to brigade training. I am sorry to say that I am not myself intimately acquainted with the routine of brigade training, but I imagine that you practice the attack and defence, and that in most cases some R.E. are put at the disposal of the brigadier. Since on manoeuvres a field company is almost always attached to each leading brigade, we may assume that the practice will be carried out in war. Brigadiers should remember this and realize that the field company may often be a part of his command. He will then see the advantage of training it and his infantry brigade as one homogeneous whole. We have practically given up moving our field companies from station to station; so far as I understand the policy, the 5th and 11th (Field) Companies will always belong to the 2nd Division, so you see this homogenous training I dream of can be made a reality, because the officers, non-commissioned officers and men of the R.E. are the same that will be with the brigade on the battlefield, and it is obvious what a pull the brigadier will have by knowing engineer officers personally and so training them to his ways that they will acct intuitively on the battlefield. For brigade training, unless bridges or defences are to be actually constructed, it is, in my opinion unnecessary to take out the rank and file, since these can be better employed keeping up the knowledge of their trades in workshops then in marching about doing nothing; but all officers, non-commissioned officers, and tool carts, accompanied by a few sappers, should go out and, in the attack and defence or retreat, the brigadiers should make it their business to think how the R.E. can serve them and issue orders accordingly, just as they would in actual warfare. The R.E. can then make all their dispositions, get the necessary tools on the spot, arrange for collecting material, appeal for working parties, in fact, do everything except the actual work, and the actual work is an easy matter when a good preliminary plan has been made and tools, material, and personnel collected.
I feel certain that in real warfare, during the attack for instance, a brigadier will have calculated in his mind the chances of a temporary set-back due to counter-attack, etc., and, therefore, the need of rallying points. But this is only one of the innumerable ways in which he can get assistance, and the more he thinks out the problem and uses his imagination from an active service point of view, I am certain he will more and more realize the extreme importance of practicing these matters in peace. Even when he has no use for the men, he should remember that there are six more or less intelligent officers with each field company, each with a horse, and all dying to be his slaves in reconnaissance work, orderly work, or what not.
I shall deal with the defence later, but I have often thought that, when it is a question of a marked enemy, you have an excellent way of instilling into your engineers your ideas as to how to defend a position for you in your rear for you to fall back on or otherwise. I suggest to divisional generals that they might give us a chance, now and then, to show our prowess in strengthening a position, by allowing us to work out the marked part and we might even add a little "cunning" and means to deceive, which would add interest. At company training, when fieldworks are being done, I suggest that an officer from the field companies should meet the infantry company officers, and that they discuss the question of the siting of trenches, and their arrangement for mutual support, the siting of obstacles, etc., etc.
Well, so much for the attack.
The defence should, of course, be to the glory of the engineer. But I am not certain that we have yet arrived at the proper way to use him. Perhaps we do not sufficiently discriminate between a deliberately entrenched position, and position which a force takes up in the course of a battle and where the men dig themselves in, more or less, where they happen to be, and more to get cover whilst resting or organizing for a further advance, than with a view of standing their ground on the position, wearing out the attackers and then going for them and finishing them off in a good counter attack.
In the former there can be but little science; in the latter there should be a very great deal.
In watching manoeuvres, I have observed that it is often the practice to break up a field company into sections (you know a field company consists of four sections, each of some 33 men, 1 tool car, 1 forage cart, and 1 pack) and distribute these all along the line. Now, personally, I do not think this an altogether sound arrangement. For manoeuvre purposes it may be convenient, because you will not have the Inspector of R.E. telling the Inspector-General that the R.E. are not employed, but it is a slovenly, sealed-pattern way of doing things, which does not appeal to me. My view is that, if the field companies are allotted to brigades in the front line, the brigadier should take his O.C. Field Company to look over the position and then decide what is the important work to do. There will be communications to be made in rear, to enable reserves to be gradually brought up, rallying points strengthened, bridges in the front constructed to admit of the further advance, clearances and roads to admit of the artillery getting to good positions, topping distant trees, etc., etc. so I consider that field companies should be held together until it is decided what work there is for them, and not broken up and distributed all along the position on the chance of there being something for them to do.
The course of events may make it desirable to fight an offensive-defensive battle on the position, by which I mean, as I said before, to allow the enemy to wear himself out against the position, and then og for him with all you are worth, to swallow him up in a great counter-attack. For this I venture to think a more scientific arrangement can be made than that of merely improving the trenches formed by the troops, when they dug themselves in with a view to further advance. More care must now be taken to co-ordinate work and add those accessories so essential to a properly defined position. Judging from what I have seen, I am sure that much more care should be taken in co-ordinating work than has usually been the case. I have seen one battalion commander take the top of the crest, whilst his neighbour took the bottom of the slopes. I have seen trenches from neighbouring sections arranged so as to fire into one another, but I have not often seen one section commander arrange his trenches so as to support his neighbour. For proper co-ordination you want a well-thought-out plan, and I believe it will be well worth your while to cause a roughly contoured map of the position to be made, showing approximately the arrangement of your trenches, etc. given a 1" map, it is astonishing how quickly they can be enlarged to a bigger scale, and with, say, four officers good at sketching, and a mile of front to do between them, viz., 440 yards each, a sufficiently accurate map on a large scale would soon be ready, sufficiently accurate for arranging a co-ordinated scheme of defence.
You see I have in my mind a position so scientifically defended that a minimum number of men are required for the defence, allowing of a maximum for the knock-down blow, the counter-stroke, and this cannot be done in a haphazard, happy-go-lucky way. But I am perhaps wandering from my subject, for it is the employment of the R.E. that we are discussing. Well, in this deliberate defence, as in all others, I think you should take your senior engineer officer into your confidence, and after explaining the position to him to make his proposals to you for this apportionment of work between the R.E. and the infantry.
Now as regards the employment of your R.E> when strengthening a position, there is nothing laid down, and rightly so, because we are prepared to undertake anything, or should be, but, generally speaking, I should say that the officer commanding the section would decide where his fire trenches are to be, and so co-ordinate them as to mutually support one another and neighbouring sections; he would leave their construction entirely to the infantry, who, of course, should be equally competent to dig trenches, and better qualified for siting them. Only let me remind you that a battalion commander may site his trenches well from his own selfish point of view, but these very same trenches may, on the other hand be exceedingly badly sited from the general point of view. I mean he must co-ordinate. Of course we may have many, many views on the siting of trenches. I remember coming across a trench, not so very long ago, beautifully site for fire over ground from 800 to 1,200 yards from the trench, but a hopeless position for bringing fire to bear on the ground within 300 yards of the trench. The officer who constructed it said that regulations insisted on a good field of fire, and as it was a question of siting so as to bring fire over all ground within 400 yards to the trench, with a bad field of fire beyond this, or siting so as to get a good field of fire beyond the 400 yards, and much dead ground within this zone, he preferred the latter. Now I may be wrong, but I believe that that trench should have been sited so as to bring every bit of ground within 300 yards of the trench under fire, leaving the ground beyond to be got at by cross-fire from neighbouring trenches if possible. It is sometimes forgotten that when you are occupying a crest exposed to the enemy's artillery fire, your heads may be kept under by it until the attackers are within 200 yards of you, so that the very extended field of fire is not always so important as would first appear to be the case. To my mind the important thing is that every bit of ground from the trench as far as possible outwards should be under fire from the trench or flanking trenches; that even at the sacrifice of field of fire the trench should be hidden from the enemy's artillery fire, that command, as a rule, takes too high a place in the scale of importance, that it must be borne in mind that where trenches are placed low down on a slope, it is difficult for the enemy's artillery to support the infantry attack; with the trenches at the top of the slope this support can be given up to the last moment. With trenches low down, almost at the bottom of the slope, it is easy to hide them, and double line of fire, combined with dummy trenches, becomes possible. The argument against the low-down trench is the difficulty of support, but there is no difficulty in constructing trenches for the supports on either side of the firing trenches. We have got into the habit of digging our trenches of the firing trenches. We have got into the habit of digging our trenches for support well behind the firing trench. I cannot understand the reason. They should be close up to the firing trench, and so save communicating trenches.
Then there is the question of retreat; but we do not fight to retreat. Besides, there are nearly always little subsidiary valleys running in at right angles to the main features which can be easily screened to admit of retirements. Of course, there is the other alternative of making your trenches well back from the crest, holding the crest with a few men to bring fire on lines of approach and mislead the enemy by means of dummy trenches, and flanking the advanced slope with artillery fire, which can often be arranged in a fairly low position. The above, of course, are only my opinions, and they are certainly against practice, for we seem always to get in well exposed positions half-way down a slope, or on the crest. The fact is, there is this instinct, which it is so difficult to get away from of being able to see everything from our trenches. Foreign authorities lay stress on the importance of short trenches, not more than 40 yards long, as these can be more easily arranged for mutual support and invisibility than long lines of trenches. For protecting the flanks, they prefer trenches in echelon.
So much for siting trenches. Well, Gentlemen, this is your job, and not that of the R.E., except when forced to do it, as when they are sent to entrench a position on their own, which it will, by the way, often fall to their lot to do, with the assistance of working parties, civilians, Territorials, Special Reservists, and others. No. the infantry should dig their trenches, and I think you will be well advised to employ your engineers on the accessories in laying traps for the attacker, putting cunning and science into the defence, etc. the section commander should, in my opinion, explain to his O.C. R.E. the general scheme of defence, and ask him to suggest the accessories. There are clearings to be made, dummy trenches, and artificial screens to be constructed, entanglements and obstacles cunningly arranged so as to force the attack to come over ground to suit you, dead ground filled in, trees topped which would otherwise block artillery fire, bridges in front of the position destroyed, walls loopholed, communications in the rear constructed, head cover and casemates, in fact, there are a hundred and one things to be thought of beyond the mere entrenchments, and often these are more important than the trenches themselves. Unfortunately, manoeuvres do not admit of the use of these accessories being developed, and I fear that in consequence we are not giving them the attention we should do. It would be interesting if some day at divisional training a marked position were specially prepared to admit of these accessories being employed with all the cunning and deceit that the art of the engineers could devise. You would have to employ special devices to show entanglements, clearing obstacles, dummy trenches, etc., but this would not be difficult.
I expect the attack of such a position would give some fun.
I remember not so long ago a flagged position had been carelessly marked (at least this was the excuse). Two of the red flags had got out of place well to the front of the main line. It as a foggy day. Those few flags completely misled the attack, and it was a long time before the real position was grasped.
I feel we have yet much to learn in this matter of deceiving the enemy.
Now, Gentlemen, before concluding, I should just like to read you a few notes on some foreign ideas on taking up and strengthening a position. It is interesting to know what line others appear to be taking, in provides food for thought.
Well, some of the foreign authorities propose to hold the main line of a position by means of fortified localities or points d'appui, occupying those tactical point which the attackers must seize before being able to make further advance.
These points d'appui are to be at supporting distance each from the other and arranged, if possible, so as to flank one another.
There are either fortified natural localities, such as woods or villages, or are artificially constructed.
Each is given a definite garrison, which provides its advanced posts, supports, and reserves. The duty of this garrison is to hold on to the ground to the last. The duty of the reserve is to turn out the enemy should he affect an entry into the locality, or deliver offensive returns, and go for his flank should he penetrate the interval between the point d'appui, or support a neighbouring point d'appui should it be hard pressed. In fact, the reserve of each point d'appui is, as I understand it, a mobile force for action inside and between points d'appui in what is called the "return offensive," but not for action beyond them. The remainder of the garrison allotted to the point d'appui is an immobile force strictly on the defensive. The rest of the force provides the grand reserve, which is the mobile manoeuvre force from the great counter-attack by which along a victory can be obtained.
A few entrenchments are sometimes of advantage, constructed in the intervals between points d'appui to help the reserves of the garrison of the point d'appui, or local mobile force in its duty, but these should not be occupied except when the offensive return is being made. The role of the artillery, presumably inferior to the attackers, is chiefly to bring cross fire in front of the point d'appui and support the counter-attack. It is said that this arrangement admits of the fewest possible numbers of the defenders being immobilized by occupying trenches, because they appear to consider that troops manning entrenchments are practically immobilized as regards offensive action, and leaves the greater number free for mobile action, and that these can be kept under cover and resting until the moment arrives for the mobile action it is also said that by this arrangement the attacker is gradually worn out, that he has to expose his hand and that of the commander, by keeping in communication with the various points d'appui, can, as it were, feel the pulse of the attack, and so know where and when to launch his counter-attack, by which along decisive results can be obtained.
Naturally, these points d'appui, whether natural or artificial, must be made very strong, with ample cover for supports close up to, and connected with, the fire trenches. A keep should be provided - something solid and storm proof - to enable some portion of the defenders to hold on till help can be sent, even were the trenches rushed in a night attack, for instance.
Some authorities point out that it is the business of the commander of the point d'appui to try and get the attackers to go for him and not to deter him from doing so by long distance fire, etc., because the mere fact of a serious attack being made means that a force of four or five times that of the garrison is being employed, and so a greater number of the enemy is being immobilized than in the defence; whereas, if the commander, by showing his strength, prematurely frightens off the attacker, it means only that the enemy's forces, which would otherwise have been committed and so immobilized, will go to swell the attackers elsewhere.
The attacking artillery, firing on a point d'appui at long grange, cannot be said to be immobilized, because it has the power of diverting its fire to neighbouring points d'appui; it can only be said to be immobilized when it is not in its power to do this, that is to say, when it has been obliged by circumstance to come in so close so that all change of objective becomes impossible, or that the infantry that it is supporting requires its undivided attention.
The attacking infantry can only bring pressure on a point d'appui by being sufficiently close to it, but this attacking infantry cannot necessarily be said to be immobilized, because up to a certain point it is at liberty to break of the attack.
So you see a point d'appui is liable to a distant artillery attack, and my have to resist an infantry attack without the pleasures of knowing that the attackers are really committed and, therefore, immobilized as regards actions on other parts of the battlefield, and the commander is not to be congratulated when, by his energetic action, he has warded off an attack.
A point d'appui then, to fulfil its mission, must be ready to receive shot and shell and bullets without replying, and must, therefore, be well organized for defence.
Some authorities believe in taking up the main line of defence some distance behind the main advance crest, that is to say, on a secondary crest, or even on the reverse slope, if not steep. They point out that if on the main crest, which is fully exposed to the enemy's artillery fire, your infantry are subjected for a long time to the nerve-shattering effect of an artillery bombardment, and are forced to keep their heads down until the attackers are within 200 yards of the position, when supports cannot reach them without elaborate arrangements in the way of covered communications, whereas if the front crest is occupied by a few well-placed detachments, in trenches, with dummy trenches in between, the power of the rapid smokeless fire of the modern rifle will allow of the enemy being deceived, and he will probably deploy for attack and carry the crest. Once this done, you have them at a disadvantage, because you can sweep these crests and the intervening ground with your artillery, when he cannot use his artillery, and the conditions for counter-attack become very favourable.
Well, Gentlemen, these are some foreign ideas; there are many more. There will always be many opinions on this difficult subject. There can be no hard and fast rule for taking up and strengthening a position, but, undoubtedly, you will enormously handicap your adversary if you can manage to take up a position which is not an obvious one to him and not defended in an obvious way to him. If you can do this, you may deceive, confuse, and delay him, and sometimes so manage as to prevent him making effective use of one of his arms, such as his artillery, and at the same time retain full scope for your own, and so bring about all the conditions for a successful counter-attack.
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