- Although we are for the moment acting on the defensive, it is necessary that we should be prepared to undertake offensive measures; and in considering them we must realize the conditions of warfare in which we are now engaged.
- A stage has now been reached in which the principles of fortress warfare rather than those of field warfare apply. It would now no longer be practicable to carry out a general offensive, or for the whole line to advance.
- When the length of front, the number of guns, and the expenditure of gun ammunition are taken into consideration it is apparent that such an operation is beyond the powers of either of the opposing armies.
- If the Germans are to be defeated they must be beaten by a process of slow attrition, by a slow and gradual advance on our part, each step being prepared by predominant artillery fire and great expenditure of ammunition.
- Our supply of ammunition and available reserves being what they are it is clear that we cannot bring about this attrition by attacks all along the line. We must concentrate our efforts on one part of the enemy's line and resolutely persevere till success is achieved. [marginal "?" by Douglas Haig]
- To bring this about, we should choose one part of the enemy's line where by virtue of our relative positions we are already at a tactical advantage, or where in the event of our attack being successful he will be compelled to withdraw to a position where he is unfavourably situated in comparison with his present position. This tactical advantage virtually resolves itself into an advantage in so far as the employment of artillery is concerned, that is to say, the combatant who can attack with the help of observed, and better still, observed converging artillery fire, is at a great advantage over the opponent, and he similarly gains a great advantage if, when he has gained his position he is able to bring observed artillery fire on or in rear of the position the enemy has retired to.
- In comparison with this artillery advantage other tactical advantages are of minor importance, for in this campaign there has been abundant proof that in so far as rifle fire is concerned disadvantages can be rectified by artificial means or by suitable use of buildings or natural obstacles. It may, in fact, be asserted that terrain and topographical features do not appreciably assist the attack or defence except in so far as the artillery advantages referred to above are concerned.
- Assuming that we concentrate our energies on one portion of the enemy's front, it is necessary to consider firstly against what portion we are already at the best tactical advantage and secondly what advantages we would gain in this respect if the enemy is driven out of his position. Assuming that our line extends as at present from CUINCHY Northwards, that is to say that the I Corps front is not given up, two positions and two portions alone stand out as affording in a greater or lesser degree the tactical advantage referred to above.
- The VIOLAINES plateau, including LA BASSEE, commands ground to the N.E. and E. Its capture would deny the enemy the use of the LA BASSEE-LILLE Road and overlooks for some distance the LA BASSEE-LENS Road. Successful operations here would greatly assist an advance on the part of the French from VERMELLES. In fact, no material advance can take here unless the VIOLANES plateau and LA BASSEE are captured.
An attack however on this plateau is a very difficult matter and would in the first instance [marginal "?" by Douglas Haig] be undertaken at a disadvantage, in so far as observed artillery fire is concerned. The enemy is very strongly ensconced in the LA BASSEE triangle and his Machine Guns are comfortably sheltered under the protection of the railway embankment behind slag heaps and mounds. To capture this triangle would involve a great expenditure of ammunition. Opposite GIVENCHY, too, the enemy is very strongly entrenched.
Even if the LA BASSEE triangle and the hostile trenches opposite GIVENCHY are captured there is no guarantee that we should be in a position to capture LA BASSEE. The taking of this place would probably involve sapping operations similar to those undertaken by the French against VERMELLES.
- Taking everything into consideration, viz:- the disadvantages under which the operations would be undertaken; the time taken to achieve the object; and the losses that would probably be entailed, we may arrive at the conclusion that an attack on this section of the front would be a very difficult matter. [Marginal "YesIf attacked by the writer of this proposal!" by Douglas Haig.]
- Examining our line further Northwards the best tactical advantage we possess over the enemy is to be found at the reentrant to the west of the MESSINES and WYTSCHAETE ridge. The enemy's defences here are abnormally strong, but from an artillery point of view we have a great advantage. With observation from Hill 75, which could probably be captured fairly easily, with converging artillery fire from Hill 63 to the South and from good positions to the West and North West of WYTSCHAETE, we should be in a position gradually to prepare the way for an infantry attack on the enemy's trenches.
- The capture of the ridge would materially straighten out the YPRES salient and rectify our disadvantages there and thus tend to remove our anxiety in that quarter. From this ridge, too, observed artillery fire can be brought to bear over a large area of country to the Eastward, and although it is problematical how far the enemy would be compelled to retire after losing the ridge, it is a fair assumption to make that occupation of HOUTHEM and WARNETON would become uncomfortable and an attack on our part Southwards against HOLLEBEKE would be made comparatively simple.
- It is not within the scope of this paper to discuss how the attack against the WYTSCHAETE-MESSINES ridge should be carried out. Whether WYTSCHAETE should be attacked before or after or simultaneously with MESSINES, or whether MESSINES should be attacked simultaneously from the South can only be decided after full discussion with the commanders specifically entrusted to carry out the operation. It will be sufficient to say that we start here with a great tactical advantage over the enemy and these tactical advantages increase if the ridge is placed in our possession.
- It its not for one moment contemplated that this plan can meet with success after a day or so's fighting. It will entail methodical plodding operations alternating between success and failure, and entailing considerable losses and a free expenditure of H.E. and lyddite ammunition. How much more ammunition will be necessary than we have at present is a matter for conjecture and can best be foretold by artillery experts, but it will have to be expended on a scale more lavish than has been the case hitherto. Further, we should need at least one Corps or its equivalent to take part in the attack in addition to the troops now holding the trenches.
- It should also be borne in mind that owing to the time necessary for preparation, viz:- siting of guns, registration of targets, rehearsal and preparation of trenches from which the attacking infantry are to advance, it may take from a fortnight to three weeks after the plan is commenced to be put into force before the first attack can be delivered.
- Given ample ammunition, at least one Corps in addition to the troops now holding the front, careful preliminary preparation in every detail, and determination to go right through with the business in hand, we ought to have a reasonable chance of success. If we cannot succeed here, it is hopeless to expect success on any other portion of our line except in the capture of a trench here or there, which would have little material effect on the enemy.
- The 1st Army to investigate the question of an attack across its front as referred to in paragraphs 9 and 10 above, and forward its proposals for the information of the Commander-in-Chief.
The 2nd Army to investigate and report similarly in regard to the attack referred to in paragraphs 11 to 16 above.
[signed W. R. Robertson]
Chief of the General Staff
"The Infantry cannot do with a gun less": The Place of the Artillery
in the British Expeditionary Force, 1914-1918