Lecture by Brigadier-General Bradford VC to his Officers in 1917
The world has been at one time and another lectured upon the open attack, and I make no apology for discussing the subject again. It is such an important far-reaching branch of our training that we cannot devote too much attention to it.
When we talk of the open attack we mean the best method known to us of getting to grips with the enemy and of defeating him, and then of taking advantage of that defeat.. If the open attack is the best method of defeating the enemy, it is obvious that it is the most important branch of our training, and that we cannot devote too much attention to it.
The principles that govern the open attack are those which govern almost every military operation, whether we are acting in trench warfare or any other phase of fighting. Consequently it behoves each one of us to study the open attack carefully until we have got such a mastery of its general principles that we can apply them intelligently to all circumstances in whatever fighting we may be engaged. I will trace through their course the various phases of an open attack.
First of all we will assume that a unit is advancing along a road in column of route, or perhaps it may be in some position of assembly, five or six thousand yards behind the line.
The Commanding Officer will receive orders that he is to take a certain objective and consolidate that objective. His first step is then to assemble his Company Commanders and some of his other Commanders. Having assembled them he will describe the objective to them, and will give them all the information he can about the strength of the enemy, the method in which they are holding their trenches, the nature and strength of their artillery, whether they have been holding the position for some time, or whether they are holding a newly-occupied position. Everything, in short, that he knows about the enemy's strength and probable acts will be explained thoroughly to his Company Commanders. He will indicate to his Commanders landmarks in the direction of the advance, such as windmills, if there are any, or any prominent features, houses, cottages, small hills, anything that will be a good guide during the advance and enable those making the attack to keep their proper direction. He would also point out any particular features in the country, such as sunken roads, embankments and places where troops could reorganise, and where they would probably be under cover from enemy fire.
His next step is to explain the formation which he intends to adopt where the Battalion is carrying out the attack.
In most Battalions a normal formation for open fighting has been adopted, and it is well that every single man in the Battalion should have some model fixed in his mind. Upon that model we can readily adapt our formation to suit any particular circumstances, but we must have something to work upon. In our Battalion you know we have adopted such a stereotyped normal formation, and of that I will say a few words in a moment.
When the Battalion Commander has given all his explanations to the Company Commanders, they in turn will assemble their Platoon Commanders, and will explain to them in the fullest detail all they know about the attack. When the Company Commanders have given their explanations and knowledge of the attack to the Platoon Commanders, the position must then be thoroughly explained to the N.C.O.'s and men.
In an attack one of the most important things which men must know is where they have to get to, and what they have to do when they get there. The must know their objective. How constantly it happens in actual operations that the individual men, and often a large number of the N.C.O.'s too, have not the least idea of the place they are intended to reach, or what action they are expected to take if they reach it. Now, how can you expect men to act intelligently and efficiently if they do not thoroughly understand the nature of the work in hand? So let us remember that what we do in our training, we shall in all probability do when we go into action.
Remember that if there is a lack of earnestness and a lack of intelligence in training, there will be a lack of efficiency and of intelligence when we endeavour to carry our operations against the enemy.
The explanations for the attack, and the details of the attack, must be made clear to all ranks. Let them thoroughly understand what formation they have got to use at all times; let them thoroughly understand what action they should take when they meet with enemy opposition; let them understand what they are to do when crossing the ground between themselves and the enemy, and what they must do when the position has been captured. Then the men can be relied upon to act intelligently and efficiently, and should the leaders become casualties the success of the whole operation will not be jeopardised.
In a real attack, and in a practice attack too, you so often find that the leaders have everything worked up in their own minds, and then if one of them becomes a casualty and ceases to be in a position to control his men, the whole operation fails because the N.C.O.'s and the other men were not perfectly clear about what they had to do.
Of course, in actual practice such detailed explanations will not always be possible. Frequently no more than a few minutes will be available for the Commanding Officer to call his Company Commanders together, show them their objective, allot it quickly, and tell them to move straight away from their position to the attack. So although we are right in expecting clear and complete explanation when time is plentiful, we must also train ourselves to act quickly on orders and to anticipate them, so that when there is little time for explanation we may be able to get on with the work straight away.
When the attack begins our first move towards the enemy will be carried out under artillery fire. Then. as soon as we come under this fire, we must break into what is known as artillery formation, that is, a number of small columns at varying intervals and distances, scattered over the front across which we have to advance.
Now the normal formation adopted in our Battalion is this - the Battalion will usually attack on a two Company front, one Company will be in support, and one in Battalion reserve under the hands of the Commanding Officer. The frontage which would normally be allotted to a Battalion would be about 400 yards, which means that each of the leading Companies would have a frontage of about 200 yards. Each Company would attack on a front of two Platoons, with the other two in support, that means that each of the two leading Platoons would have a front of about a hundred yards.
Each Platoon when they break into artillery formation will separate into two parts, two sections will be leading and the other two will follow behind, but not directly behind. What we must avoid is getting regularity into our formations when under artillery fire, because if we are in regular formation it will be easy for the enemy to range and to hit us. But if we offer the enemy an irregular formation it is most difficult for them to adapt their fuses accurately.
Well one half of each Platoon will be leading and the other half Platoon, that is the two sections, will be following about 250 yards behind.
You will see that the Platoons are organised in depth. The great advantage of this is that when in the later stages of the advance you come to reinforce Platoons, each Platoon will be reinforced by men of its own, who know each other, who know their leader, and are accustomed to work together.
The advance is then continued in this artillery formation without any pause; none of these columns need halt, and you should very rarely halt under artillery fire, because by halting you lay yourselves open to the full attack of that artillery fire. Whereas if you keep on the move you will probably be advancing just in front of this fire, and the enemy in altering their fuses will find great difficulty in hitting any particular column as it moves forward.
Besides, by continuing to advance you maintain the fighting spirit and determination of the men; whereas, if you halt, the men lose their enthusiasm to get forward and may not recover it. Also by going forward you lower the morale of the enemy.
Advance in artillery formation until you come under effective rifle or machine gun fire from the enemy, or until you reach a position where you would be in imminent danger of coming under effective fire.
You know that, in this war, we have found by bitter experience that you must be extended in open order before you come within the danger of encountering enemy fire; that position may be 1,400 yards or less from the enemy. You cannot say exactly where it will be, but directly you come to that position, the leading column must at once open out into extended order, the men extending to five paces.
The advance then will still be in quick time, and will be continued until the leading lines reach a position at which, if they advance further, they would suffer too many casualities to justify them in moving forward. So they will lie down and wait to be reinforced. The next line will soon come up and reinforce them, and when they have gained that additional weight they will again be able to move forward. No firing from our rifles must yet take place; every round of ammunition will be required at the later stages of the attack, and it it useless to shoot until we are certain that every round fired has some effect upon the enemy. The ammunition must be husbanded.
Having been reinforced the line will move forward until it again finds itself suffering casualties from enemy fire, and then comes the time when the advance must be continued in fixed rushes. How far from the enemy the distance may be it is impossible to say, but we have found that from 800 to 1,000 yards is usually the distance at which the advance has to be continued by these fixed rushes.
The actual fire of the enemy will dictate the exact position. And at this period of the attack you will probably be able to begin using your rifles with great effect; and the great principles to bear in mind are these - the principle of mutual support, the principle of fire and movement; you must realise that the only manner in which sections can get forward is by the aid of your own rifles.
When one section is advancing, the other section or sections must be keeping up an effective fire upon the enemy in order to keep down their fire and, generally speaking, to unsteady them so that the advance may be continued in these quick rushes.
What Section Commanders must bear in mind is that by going forward they draw the enemy fire upon themselves, and so greatly assist the remainder of the line. As soon as a section has got forward and the men have recovered their breath the Section Commander will cause his section to fire on the enemy and to direct their fire upon the target which is causing most trouble to our advance. This target need not necessarily be straight in front, more often than not it will be obliquely either to the right or left, and Section Commanders must be very alert to direct fire upon the target which is holding up or delaying the advance. In this movement the fire of Lewis guns will play a most important part. You know their fire corresponds to the power of about fifty rifles, and consequently the tremendous support of covering fire which they can bring to bear on the enemy will materially assist our advance.
I cannot impress too strongly upon you those principles of mutual support, of fire and movement, of co-operation, of covering fire throughout the advance. It is only by putting into practice these tremendously important principles that we shall be able to get forward.
Every man, every N.C.O., every officer must be determined to get forward, cost what it may; but he must know the safest and most expedient method of doing so, and that, as I have said, is by the aid of your own weapons. It is the only way by which we can get forward. Sections Commanders then, must be always ready to take full advantage of the covering fire of other sections. When they notice that the Lewis guns or other sections are opening an effective fire upon the enemy, they must seize the chance to work themselves forward; and directly they are down they must open fire upon the enemy and thus enable the other sections to advance. I cannot make that point too plain, even if I repeated it again and again.
Another point which Section Commanders must bear in mind is that they should always, during the advance, choose the next position to which they intend to move.
In every tract of country, across which we have to advance, suitable positions for our sections have to be found. In the country, of course, in which we have been operating for many months a large number of shell-holes are to be found, and these shell-holes are ideal positions. Indeed, you cannot get a more suitable position for a section, the men can fire effectively to the front and to both flanks, and at the same time get a good deal of cover. But whether shell-holes exist or not, there are always some small undulations, some depressions, short small banks on the side of roads, and similar places, which offer great scope for Section Commanders in choosing fire positions. The advance, then, will be continued in these section rushes until we reach some position near the enemy, probably 300-400 yards away, when we find that in spite of reinforcements we cannot move forward without beating down the enemy fire by some means. That means is by our own rifle fire and our artillery fire. Our artillery are always standing by to help us in every possible way with our advance. And this emphasises the importance of always sending back information, so that we may get the full benefit of co-operation with the artillery.
A fight with the enemy to gain superiority of fire will have begun, and not until we have gained the superiority and unsteadied the enemy will we be able to continue our advance, still probably in section rushes. In those section rushes we will go forward until we get within assaulting distance of the enemy.
Assaulting distance is about 50 yards. Men cannot charge for a greater distance and then be fit at the end of the charge for the work that still remains to be done. Now, it is impossible to say at what moment this assault will be carried out, it depends upon the circumstances of the case.
Usually the assault is initiated by some local Commander, such as the Company or Platoon Commander, or even a Section Commander. This man sees that the time is right for the assault, he sees that the enemy are weakening and beginning to waver, he notices perhaps that a small party of the enemy are retreating from their position, and so he springs up and dashes there and then to the assault, taking with him the men on both his right and left. And directly the others further to the flank see that the assault has begun, they themselves will rise and dash forward.
It is impossible to get every assault to synchronise, over a big front you cannot expect all platoons and sections to move forward at the same time. You cannot get them together, but provided everyone realises that he must, if success is to be gained, assault as soon as he can, there will be no difficulty in carrying out an assault under actual circumstances....
When the assault has been carried out, we must at once set to work to reorganise. If the position we have captured is not under enemy shell-fire, an effort will be made there to form up a section, platoon and companies in their original formation. Before, however, that is done, parties must be told off to pursue the enemy, to harass them with our fire, and to maintain touch with them.
In battle it is extremely important not to lose touch with the enemy for a moment, nor to allow them to get away without being pursued and destroyed by the effect of our fire.
Should the position be under heavy fire from either artillery or rifles it will, of course, be impossible to reorganise in that manner; under such conditions you will have to carry out a hasty organisation in the same manner as you did during the advance.
While I am mentioning this work of reorganisation, I should like to say a little more about it. During the advance by sections we must do all we can to keep the sections intact and to prevent intermingling. . . . Under certain circumstances, however, it will be impossible to avoid the intermingling of sections, and when they do intermingle, a reorganisation has got to take place. And this will be done by Section and Platoon Commanders taking to themselves the men who lie nearest to them. The only way to do this is for the Section Commander to point to some man, say a few paces from him on the left, and say, "So-and-so, you are the left-hand man of my section."
If the fire is so hot that he is unable to make himself heard, the Section Commander must by gesture give the man to understand that he is the left of his section. In the same way another man will be chosen as the right of the section, and these men must be prepared to place themselves under a new leader. They must be in sympathy with this work of reorganisation, and be on the qui vive to conform at once to the orders of a new Section Commander. . . .
And now let us get back to our point. After this reorganisation has taken place, and after we have pursued the enemy with our fire, our patrols will be out doing all they can to keep in touch with the enemy. As I told you before, we must watch the enemy so carefully that he will be unable to make a move of any kind without us knowing about it.
After we have captured the position you may be sure the enemy will try to regain it by launching a strong counter-attack.
First of all he will possibly launch an immediate counter-attack, and we should find little difficulty in dealing with this. But after a few hours, or perhaps a day or so afterwards, you may be sure that the Germans will make a very determined counter-attack in force; and unless we are prepared to meet it we shall most certainly lose our position; all the work we have done in gaining our objective will be thrown away, and we shall suffer heavy casualties and have to return to our original position.
Again and again this has happened in recent fighting, and if we analyse the circumstances carefully we shall see that, if the men who had gained these positions had been properly trained and determined to hold them at all costs, these set-backs need not have occurred.
Now what have we got to do to resist the counter-attack? For we can and must resist it, and no other thought but of resisting it is permissible.
First of all we must get the best possible protection against enemy artillery fire, and we gain that by consolidating properly, by digging a deep narrow trench with good traverses, or, if we are not making traverses, with plenty of curve in the trench. By these means we get protection from the oblique and frontal fire of the enemy artillery and localise any shells that burst in the trench.
Every man must realise that unless he digs with might and main directly he reaches his objective, he will be unable to obtain cover from shell-fire, and will eventually suffer for not working his hardest. The very lives of these men depend upon the intensity with which they dig, and remember during our training to drive this into the men's souls. Make them realise that their power to resist counter-attack, and their power to maintain themselves in safety under enemy shell-fire rests entirely with themselves. If they are prepared to expend their energy in a sensible and able manner they can be comparatively safe.
Often the position captured by us will be a trench, and then the work of consolidation will usually consist in adapting that trench to suit ourselves, in improving the existing traverses, in reconnoitring the dug-outs and, when necessary, getting them ready for our own occupation. Should these dug-outs be facing the enemy, as they probably will be, it will be necessary to build an island traverse in front of the door of each, so that shells bursting in a trench may be prevented from going into the dug-out.
Sometimes we shall find that our final objective, if it is a trench, is so battered that it is impossible to consolidate it effectively. In such a case it will be wiser to move forward 100 yards or so, and build a new good trench where the ground is not so badly knocked about. Then our patrols, who will, as I told you, be keeping in touch with the enemy, will be watching to see if the enemy is making an attempt to form up anywhere. And if they discover any such attempt they will at once warn you, and you will report back to the Colonel, who will arrange for the artillery to be brought to bear immediately upon the position where the enemy is forming up. But we must not trust entirely to the artillery . . . . Our rifles are the weapons which will help us most of all to beat off that counter-attack - our rifles, our Lewis guns, our hand-grenades, our rifle-grenades.
You can see then how important it is that our rifles should always be fit to use, and that every man should be ready at any moment to open rapid and effective fire when the enemy begin to advance. We have nothing to fear from the enemy, however strong he may be, if we have a good trench, and are able to use our rifles, and have ammunition. And when positions have been lost the reason has often been that men have failed to realise the power of their own rifles and have not used them to the greatest effect.
We can then, resist counter-attacks if we keep in touch with the enemy by means of our patrols, if we consolidate effectively so that we may obtain as perfect protection as possible against the enemy advances, and the most important point of all, if every man is absolutely determined to cling to the captured position, cost what it may.
The foregoing remarks refer to the open attack pure and simple, and I want you to realise that the trench to trench attack is exactly the same as the open attack except that one or two especial points require consideration.. As I told you at the beginning of my remarks, all tactical military operations are entirely governed by the principles which govern the attack in the open, the principle of co-operation and so-forth. The special points which require consideration in trench warfare are these.
First of all a good deal of mopping up will have to be done. You know that every trench we cross over in our advances must be mopped up by somebody. Some parties must be told off to clear these trenches entirely of the enemy, so that the men who have advanced may be in no danger of Germans coming out of their dug-outs and opening fire on those who have advanced beyond them.
Then the training of our bombers requires careful attention. For, in trench warfare, a lot of work can be done better by bombers than by anybody else. This work includes the clearing of trenches, the establishing of blocks in particular positions, the advance along trenches and the capture of blocks held by the enemy.
Next there is the all-important principle of working right up to our barrage. In every trench to trench assault we now have a creeping barrage to assist us in our advance, and the infantry must advance right up to that barrage. The distance we can move up to a barrage is about 50 yards and we must keep right up to that distance, even if we suffer one or two casualties from our own artillery.
Lastly, in the initial parts of our advance, the distances between lines and columns will have to be reduced, because in trench warfare the enemy is able at very short notice to put down a barrage on any particular position, and as soon as he has observed that our attack has begun he will place a barrage on our jumping off trench, or just behind it, in some position which will hamper the forward movement of our troops. So we have got to get our troops beyond that line before the enemy barrage comes down, and consequently our columns must be quite close together to avoid the danger of being caught by that barrage.
But with these exceptions trench to trench attack corresponds entirely to attacks in the open. In every attack you have been in or have heard of you will remember that at one stage or another they have corresponded to the stages of the open attack. . . . And all movements in trench warfare are carried out in exactly the same manner as in open warfare.
There is only one way of moving under fire, and that is, as I have told you, by mutual support of your own weapons, and that principle holds good just as much in trench fighting as in any other type of fighting. So do not get hold of the idea that trench to trench attacks are a thing apart. They are not. If you can carry out efficiently the attack in the open, you will have far less difficulty in carrying out trench warfare of all kinds.
Let me say a few words on morale. What do I mean by morale? Morale is the spirit which compels all men to do their best in all operations. It is the spirit which gives them complete confidence in the success of their own arms, complete confidence in themselves and in their leaders, confidence that they may win through, that they may have the upper hand of the enemy, that man for man they are superior.
During the years of the Verdun fighting, in the early part of last year, General Joffre issued a message to his men, in which he said: 'As long as the spirit of you French soldiers is what it is, I have absolutely no fear that the enemy will ever be able to break through.' You see that he referred neither to the guns nor rifles, but only to the spirit of the men, their morale. He knew that as long as their morale was what it was, no forces, be they ever so strong, would be able to break through. It must be the same with us. . . . We must have complete confidence in ourselves. And how can we gain that confidence? By careful study of our profession so that we can make ourselves one with it, and by earnest application to our training.
If we can handle our men skilfully during training they will realise that we shall lead them skilfully and well when we lead them into action. They will have complete confidence in us, and we in out turn will have complete confidence in them. And unless this is so, however strong our artillery and numbers may be, there is not the smallest hope that we shall meet with any continuous success.
That is all I am going to tell you about the attack now . . . but you must study this subject carefully in your spare time, you must think over these general principles and not learn them off by heart, you must study them so that when you go into action you will be able to apply them intelligently, and be able to adapt them to any circumstances in which you find yourselves. And I appeal to you to put into your training such a spirit of earnestness and conscientiousness that you will inspire the men under you with the same spirit of zeal. In this way we shall be able to take full advantage of our training, and be able to realise the reason for all our formations and for all our actions, and the men will be able to use their intelligence under all circumstances and work in complete sympathy with their leaders.
If we can make ourselves perfect in our practice attacks and operations during training, we shall, as I have told you very often, be able to carry out our operations perfectly when we come under fire.
My friends I want to conclude by telling you how proud I am to be your Commanding Officer. The success of the operation in which we have just taken part was due entirely to your personal qualities, to your ability as soldiers, and to your noble courage. It was a most difficult operation. You were called upon at short notice to move across difficult country undeer very trying conditions. You, however, did everything in such a soldierly manner that we were not only able to do that but also to go through the attack quite successfully, and to take a large number of prisoners with very little loss to ourselves.
This attack of ours entirely justified our past training and proved it to be right. The principles which we had been studying, the principles which we had believed to be correct, were proved in these operations to be right; and that is very inspiriting.
It proved also that the reason of our success was the fact that you in your past training had earnestly applied yourselves to your work, and had done all in your power to make yourselves, under all circumstances, capable and efficient soldiers.