Aimée Fox-Godden examines the performance of the 9th Australian Infantry Brigade during the First Battle of Passchendaele, 12 October 1917.
Thank you for such a warm welcome to the National Army Museum. It really is both an honour and a privilege to speak here this afternoon, particularly given that this is the first year of the centenary of the First World War.
My talk today focuses on Passchendaele and of course, as many of you are aware, the mere mention of the word Passchendaele conjures up images around the futility of war, bungling generalship and mud. It is a name widely and misleadingly given to the Third Battle of Ypres and it continues to dominate public perceptions of the First World War to this day.
In his war memoirs Britain's former wartime prime minister, David Lloyd George, devoted 27 pages to the successful Hundred Days Offensive of 1918. He devoted over 100 pages to Third Ypres. This is a campaign that has been fought, and continues to be fought, through the medium of print.
Now, my talk this afternoon will focus on just one day of the Third Ypres campaign and that is the First Battle of Passchendaele on 12 October 1917. And it will focus on the performance of just one formation: the 9th Australian Infantry Brigade.
So, to give you a running order for the talk this afternoon, first off I would like to talk about the 9th Brigade itself - who they were, when they arrived, what they did - before then providing some, what I think is, important, strategic context to First Passchendaele. I think it is important to contextualise this operation with preceding battles.
And then, if you will excuse the pun, I want to take you through a bit of a blow-by-blow account of the battle itself, just highlighting some of the key personalities and the key actions on that day, before then going on to examine some of the factors that affected 9th Brigade's performance, with a particular focus on its command and control systems.
So, to talk about the 9th Brigade first. They were formed in late 1915, early 1916 and constituted the 33rd, 34th, 35th and 36th Battalions. And the brigade had a very distinct regional identity. In a way it's quite similar to our own 'Pals' battalions in the UK.
The 33rd Battalion was drawn from the New England district, largely from Armidale, and they were known as 'New England's Own'. So you are kind of getting the resonance here with our 'Pals' battalions.
The 34th Battalion were largely drawn from Maitland, just here, and there were known as 'Maitland's Own'.
The 35th Battalion were drawn from Newcastle, but also from the wider Hunter region, and they were known as 'Newcastle's Own'. And what was important, I suppose, with the 35th Battalion is that there was a high proportion of miners within that battalion as well, so it lent a social dimension alongside its regional affinity.
The 36th Battalion, however, were recruited somewhat differently. They were known as 'Carmichael's Thousand'. The battalion was recruited from local rifle clubs in New South Wales at the insistence of Ambrose Campbell Carmichael, who was the Minster for Public Information in the New South Wales government. And Carmichael himself had the courage of his convictions and enlisted in the 36th serving as a captain as the sprightly age of 50.
The 9th Brigade arrives in England on Salisbury Plain in July 1916 and it forms part of the 3rd Australian Division, who are commanded by Sir John Monash. And they are held up, and still are held up, to be one of the most highly trained, tactically astute divisions in the Australian Imperial Force. After four months of intensive training on Salisbury Plain, drawing on the lessons of the Somme campaign, utilising the most up to date tactical doctrine, the division arrived in the trenches in November 1916.
Brigadier General Alexander Jobson initially commands the brigade from its formation until August 1917 when he relinquishes command of the formation. In actual fact, Monash invites him to resign his command of this formation. And according to Charles Bean, the Australian official historian, Jobson was 'constitutionally incapable' of facing battle conditions.
Jobson is replaced by Brigadier General Charles Rosenthal, a former artillery officer. And Rosenthal commands the 9th Brigade until his promotion to command the 2nd Australian Division in May 1918.
I think it's fair to say that the 9th Brigade had quite limited operational experience prior to First Passchendaele. It had been in France less than a year when it attacked on 12 October 1917. It had undertaken a large raid near Houplines, near Armentières, in early 1917. However, its real baptism of fire didn't come until the Battle of Messines in June 1917. And I think it is important to point out at this point that it performed well in both of these operations.
So, where does First Passchendaele fit within the wider Third Ypres campaign? Well, it feels a bit like teaching grandma to suck eggs because I'm sure a lot of you are aware of this information, but for those of you who are not, the Third Ypres campaign began on 31 July 1917 with clear strategic goals. Its aim was to drive the German Army off the ridges east of Ypres, before advancing east and north-east to capture the key strategic railheads of Thourot and Roulers. An amphibious operation to capture Ostend was planned in conjunction with an assault from the coast at Nieuport.
This would capture the two important channel ports, but it would also create a strategic pincer movement forming a flank around which the Allies could attack the Germans in the rear. So this seems like eminently sensible clear strategic goals.
Responsibility for the campaign was initially granted to General Sir Hubert Gough, commander of the Fifth Army. The attacks of August 1917 had over-ambitious objectives and they were extremely costly. Not only were the operations hampered by atrocious rainfall, but they were typified by poor planning and inadequate preparation.
By 25 August 1917 [Field Marshal Sir Douglas] Haig decides to transfer operational responsibility to General Sir Herbert Plumer. Plumer and his staff at Second Army planned a series of limited-objective, bite-and-hold operations. These were organised in great depth. They used fresh formations to leapfrog one another and they benefit from very heavy creeping and standing barrages.
Between late September and early October 1917, the Battles of Menin Road, Polygon Wood, and Broodseinde were fought to great effect and they appeared to vindicate bite-and-hold as a foolproof method of combatting the German defensive system. However, the dry weather of September broke after the attack on Broodseinde on 4 October and there followed the heaviest rainfall in the region in 75 years. And the thing with this dry weather, prior to the downfall, is that it actually masked the reality of a forward communications system that was completely inadequate and close to collapse.
But in spite of this inadequacy and the torrential rain, two further assaults were agreed forming the third phase of this campaign. The Battle of Poelcappelle on the 9 October was fought by two relatively inexperienced British divisions serving in Second Anzac [Corps], the 49th and the 66th. The result was a costly failure. Poor preparation, poor communications and weak artillery support contributed significantly to this operation's failure.
The decision to attack again three days later on 12 October was to gain the last section of high ground before the winter set in. Preparation time was seriously reduced to the detriment of both logistic and artillery support. In my very humble opinion First Passchendaele was simply an operational step too far.
Now, what I want to do for this next section is again talk you through the battle and pull out some of these key personalities and actions. So, I hope you can see some of the maps. I will use the laser if not.
The First Battle of Passchendaele was very much a Second Anzac operation. It operates with the New Zealand Division and the 3rd Australian Division in the front. It does have support from First Anzac Corps in the form of the 12th Brigade that are drawn from the 4th Division. The tasks for the divisions on the day: New Zealand Division were to take the Bellevue Spur on the left here; the 3rd Division were to take the main Passchendaele Ridge here; and the 12th Brigade were to provide a flank guard for the 3rd Division.
Now, I think if any of you have been across this ground you will know that this area is dominated by three spurs that sit in an E shape here. And basically what this means is that defenders on each spur can support each other with flanking fire. And 9th Brigade itself is subject to both reverse fire and enfilade fire throughout the operation itself.
The objectives for 3rd Division's attack: the first objective - the red line - that's an initial advance of 1,200 yards [1,100m]; the blue line - second objective - a further 500 yards [460m]; and the green line - just beyond Passchendaele village - is a final 765 yards [700m].
The total depth of attack on 12 October is approximately 2,500 yards [2,300m]. These objectives were almost double those set to the 49th and 66th Divisions on 9 October, three days earlier.
To focus down on a bit of the nitty-gritty here. The axis of 9th Brigade's assault actually runs diagonal to the axis of the ridgeline. Now, if anyone's tried to negotiate this, it generally goes against the tendency to follow the contour line. So, basically what you get here is a kind of a wedge developing, where battalions start following the ridgeline, which causes all kinds of contact problems with this formation here. So, 9th Brigade start going up here. And, as we'll see later, those contact problems and communication problems are incredibly important.
The taking of objectives. This is the typical Second Army way of doing things in operations - they leapfrog battalions. So, the 34th Battalion is to take the red line, 35th Battalion to pass through them to take the blue line, and 36th Battalion to pass through both of them to take the green line. 33rd Battalion down here are held in divisional reserve, before being passed to command of brigade at midday. But they were only to be used if the 10th Brigade, operating in this sector, gets held up. This is an incredibly contentious issue between Rosenthal and Monash. It highlights a number of command and exploitation problems, which I will discuss later on in the talk.
The battle itself. It commences at 5:25 in the morning on 12 October. The approach march and the initial stages are incredibly difficult. Not only does it take approximately four hours to traverse the one mile [1.6km] between Zonnebeke and Tyne Cot, the approach is hampered by enemy shelling and heavy machine-gun fire. In fact, intelligence reports from Second Anzac suggests that the 6th and 8th Jäger Regiments, part of the 195th Division that are facing Second Anzac, actually have double allowances of light and heavy machine guns, and these are all employed in depth. This attack is not a surprise to the Germans opposite.
But, in spite of that, the 34th Battalion do manage to take their objective at 7:00 in the morning, which - an hour and thirty-five minutes after the start of the attack - is pretty good going.
This picture - again it feels a bit strange showing this picture because it's a beautiful sunny day in Belgium, and obviously it wasn't on 12 October 1917 - but this is to provide a bit of context. So you've got Passchendaele church in the background there. This line really is about where the red line was. And this picture is taken on the 9th and 12th Brigade boundary, so we're looking north up the battlefield. And this position here is just in front of the blue line, so you get a bit of a sense of the kind of distances they're traversing.
We have the 34th Battalion on the red line, so at this point it is the 35th Battalion's turn to move through them to take the blue line. But unfortunately the 35th Battalion are unable to do this. They can't take the blue line without assistance. They've suffered a number of heavy casualties owing to this heavy enemy shelling and machine-gun fire. And it's around about this point in the battle that Clarence Jeffries wins his Victoria Cross.
Now, I want to dial back a bit here in that Jeffries is an officer in the 34th Battalion. The 34th Battalion were on their approach to the red line. They get held up by a German pillbox on the Passchendaele Ridge, and it begins to hold up the advance. So Jeffries, using his initiative, organises a group of his men. He attacks and captures the position and takes four guns and 35 prisoners, which is fantastic, which means that 35th Battalion can now pass through and take the blue line.
But unfortunately their advance is held up. There is a machine-gun position at Tiber, the position that I highlighted earlier, and it holds up their advance. Jeffries, again realising that it is important for him to use his initiative, again mobilises a group of men. He comes up from the red line, makes for this gun position, deploys his men, rushes the emplacement and is killed in doing so. His men manage to work around the position and take the prisoners, and they take the pillbox. But unfortunately he is killed in doing so.
And Jeffries is buried in Tyne Cot cemetery and some of you may have visited his grave. And, as you can see from the picture, it is one of the most visited graves probably in that cemetery.
Following Jeffries's action, the 34th Battalion actually move up to help the 35th, reinforcing on the right. And the 36th Battalion, rather than pushing on to the green line, decide to reinforce on the left. This happens at around about 10:00 in the morning. So by 10:00 in the morning the left-hand side of the blue line is in a fairly well-consolidated position. But the problem is it involves all three assaulting battalions, which means that it is going to be very difficult for them to push on and take the final objective. And you will also see that there's a large swath of the blue line here that remains uncaptured and will remain uncaptured for the rest of the day.
Throughout this battle, as I alluded to earlier, the 9th Brigade are subject to heavy enfilade fire, particularly on its left flank, and this comes from positions such as Crest Farm, but also from Passchendaele village itself. And the problem with the left flank is really because the New Zealand Division who are operating here are unable to capture the Bellevue Spur. They actually get stopped in front of Bellevue Farm, which is really just before all the red barbed wire.
This account on screen is taken from the 40th Battalion's regimental history - 40th Battalion were in the 10th Brigade serving next to the New Zealanders - and I think you'll agree that it makes for very harrowing reading.
And not only was enfilade fire received from the left flank, but it was also received on the right, again from this position Tiber, Assyria and also a position that's just off the screen down here called the Keiburg. And the Keiburg is really a small ridgeline that runs off the main Passchendaele Ridge and causes all sorts of issues with 9th Brigade and their advance.
The 9th Brigade, unsurprisingly perhaps, are unable to hold onto the blue line owing to heavy fire and a loss of support on both flanks. The blue line is on a forward slope, which means that it's under direct observation from the east, but also from the south positions here. Divisional orders are for the blue line to be held at all costs, but this was simply impossible due to fire and heavy casualties. So the 9th Brigade decide to withdraw from the blue line between 3 and 4 o'clock in the afternoon. They had been in this position for six hours sustaining incredibly heavy casualties.
Now, unfortunately, there was no chance to reconnoitre the positions behind them and they ended up withdrawing beyond the red line and actually dug in just in advance of their jump off point. The order to withdraw was given by Major Henry Carr, an officer in the 35th Battalion and the senior officer on the blue line at that time - so it was his judgement call to make. And his actions resulted in a Court of Enquiry to ascertain why the 9th Brigade decided to withdraw from this position.
Prior to the withdrawal, as you can see from the map, they made a fairly substantial advance of about 1,700 yards [1,500m] - the furthest advance on 12 October - but this came at a heavy cost. They were suffering about 70 per cent officer casualties and about 67 per cent casualties for other ranks, so this was not a cheap operation.
And this picture on the screen is the Defy Crossing and this marks the limit of the Australians' advance on 12 October. And the reason I put that up is to show you the type of churned-up terrain that these troops are having to attack across on 12 October.
So that was the battle. What can we deduce then about 9th Brigade's performance in this operation?
Well, in my view, past performance, particularly at Messines, suggests that the 9th Brigade was a good, steady formation. And I think this is really evidenced by the six hours it spent on the blue line under very heavy fire. But I do think its performance was subject to factors, some of which were outside of its control.
First, I would say, is the lack of preparation time. The brigade had at best three days to prepare for this attack and this detrimentally affected their artillery and logistic support.
Second point: inclement weather. The rain was unseasonably heavy for the time of year. In fact, it was twice the average rainfall for October and November. This affected the state of the ground, it slowed the infantry and their ability to keep up with the artillery barrage. And, of course, because of the state of the ground, it meant that the graze fuse on the shells didn't have enough resistance to detonate, so the shells were pretty much just ploughing into the mud.
Monash writes to Alec Godley, the commander of the Second Anzac Corps stating that 'all the reasons of the failure of the attack to achieve its objectives may be summed up in the condition of the ground'.
The third point: depth of objectives. These were double those assigned to the 66th and 49th Divisions. For the 9th Brigade this operation is very much a case of diminishing returns. It's attacking over churned-up ground, it's not able to destroy the enemies guns, and I think this is one of the key problems with bite-and-hold, particularly in this kind of weather. And also I think that this operation has something of an identity crisis. The objectives suggest that it is a deliberate attack. The preparation time suggests that it is a quick attack. And I think there is a bit of a mismatch there in the understanding of this operation, particularly at the time.
The final point is command and control. Now this is something that a brigade can exert some kind of control over. And really as a decision to withdraw is a command decision, this is the area that I really want to pick up on for the rest of the talk this afternoon. My aim is to treat command like an onion really - I want to peel back the layers from division down to company to really ascertain who was aware of what, and potentially to deduce the weak link in the chain of command.
So, to start at the top: as I mentioned earlier, the commander of 3rd Division at this time is General Monash. He's an engineer by trade. He joins the militia in 1884 as an artillery officer and he actually only becomes a professional soldier just before the outbreak of war. He's given command of the 4th Australian Infantry Brigade, he serves with distinction at Gallipoli, and as a result of this in 1916 Monash is promoted and given command of the 3rd Australian Division. And he commands this division from its inception and is able to put his own indelible mark on this formation.
But he is not without his critics. Monash and his staff's performance at First Passchendaele has come under quite severe criticism, not only from contemporaries at the time, but also from historians since. Edmund Ironside, a staff officer in the 4th Canadian Division, wrote: 'I found Monash and Peter Jackson - Monash's GSO1[General Staff Officer (Grade 1)] - in a dugout in the ramparts of Ypres, from which they had directed the attack, without either having been to see the ground, before or after the attack, which failed disastrously.'
Monash's lack of personal reconnaissance for this operation has been cited as a key criticism. One historian suggests that if Monash had seen the ground, he may have viewed the likely success of this operation somewhat differently.
In his report to Second Anzac after the operation Monash wrote that 'time of preparation was too short to permit of adequate reconnaissance by leaders both senior and subordinate'. This lack of preparation time meant that his orders were transferred verbally rather than in writing. Discussion and conferencing were gaining ground by 1917 with the beginnings of a return to principles rather than the precise and detailed orders that typify the campaigns... particularly the Somme campaign and earlier.
I think, personally, one of the problems with Monash is his tendency towards very hands-on command. He liked to micro-manage his subordinates, even though they are incredibly competent. He was known to usurp the role of his brigadiers - he would state how they must employ their battalions. And this goes against the great military adage of 'see down two levels, command down one'.
And this tendency towards micro-management would manifest itself with quite painful effect at First Passchendaele with the example of the 33rd Battalion, who were held in divisional reserve until midday. In a message to the 9th Brigade at 11:30 in the morning, Monash wrote that 'the 33rd Battalion will probably be available for your own use, but not be committed without first referring to me'.
And this actually countered official guidance found at the top of the Army that recommended: 'The man on the spot is the best man to judge when the situation is favourable for pushing on, and higher commanders in the rear must be prepared to support the man on the spot to the fullest extent...' And I think when we go through and assess the different levels of command and their performance, it is important to bear this guidance in mind, particularly when we look at the next level: brigade.
The commander of 9th Brigade, Charles Rosenthal, is a former artillery officer, who had previously held the role of Commander Royal Artillery in the 4th Australian Division. He had been in charge of 9th Brigade for less than two months before First Passchendaele, and I think it's important to know that First Passchendaele was Rosenthal's first operation, not only as a brigade commander but also as an infantry commander as well.
But it is quite clear from his personal diary that he takes this job pretty seriously. He writes how he has consulted all and sundry publications from the general staff on infantry work. So he is clearly trying to learn as much as he can before he is thrown into this operation.
But I think it is important to put Rosenthal into a bit of context here. As I mentioned earlier, Alexander Jobson, his predecessor, had been forced to resign. Monash didn't believe that Jobson was capable of 'exercising strong and determined command and leadership'. Monash was concerned that the brigade wasn't pulling together, units weren't doing what they were told. And this legacy is so important when assessing Rosenthal's behaviour during the operation, but also his behaviour afterwards.
Rosenthal is quite candid in his diary. He confessed quite considerable doubts over the rushed nature of the preparations and he believed that there was very little time to prepare for this. And his actual ability to affect the course of the battle itself was negligible. And this is in part due to the fact that there was no buried cable beyond brigade headquarters, which meant that runners and visual were the only methods of communicating forward of brigade. He was often unaware of the situation for many hours, and it is little wonder that in his after-action report he wrote that 'better results would be obtained if brigade commanders could be in personal touch with battalion commanders and thus promptly be able to organise assistance where most required'.
Rosenthal's inability to affect the course of the battle is further undermined by the lack of control over the 33rd Battalion. He did not receive control until midday, by which time the battle had effectively bogged down and there was insufficient opportunity for him to employ his reserves effectively.
Generally this isn't just limited to the First Passchendaele operation. There did seem to be a lack of consistency across the board with regards to the role of brigade commander, particularly around whether they should be going forward and leading or staying back and commanding. And this inconsistent doctrine, coupled with Monash's top-heavy micro-management, limited Rosenthal's options substantially during this operation.
It was under Rosenthal's orders that a Court of Enquiry was held to, what he called, 'get at the facts' regarding 9th Brigade's withdrawal from the blue line. The court was presided over by Lieutenant Colonel Leslie Morshead, some of you might be familiar with him and his Second World War fame. It examined 19 witnesses of all ranks across all battalions, and it primarily focused on the actions of Major Henry Carr, the man responsible for giving the order to withdraw.
Now, it is important to know that no other Courts of Enquiry were actually held within the 3rd Division, despite 10th Brigade also deciding to withdraw from their first line objective. The enquiry wasn't really an exercise in trying to blame someone, it was more to highlight areas of improvement. And I think in my opinion Rosenthal requested this Court of Enquiry almost as an act of self-preservation. First Passchendaele is his first operation, it's not a particularly successful one and I think, bearing in mind the legacy of his predecessor as well, Rosenthal wants to weed out poor performance and he wants to put his own mark on this formation and show that he is not weak when it comes to weeding out poor performance.
One of the key findings of the Court of Enquiry focused on the performance of the brigade's battalion commanders. The findings state that commanders 'should have gone forward and personally taken hold of the situation'. By this the battalion commander appears to be the weak link, although I think this is really exacerbated by poor communications and also relative command inexperience in the field of battle itself.
Along with a lack of buried cable back to brigade headquarters, all battalion commanders were in the same headquarters at a place called Seine House. This picture is just to show the type of conditions - this is the road going back to brigade headquarters, so if you were a runner trying to get down that road, it's going to be pretty difficult.
Conditions were cramped, they were dangerous and, as the 33rd Battalions after-action report stated, there shouldn't have been more than two COs [commanding officers] in that headquarters. Continuous movement and a number of men going in and out of headquarters at all times often attracted the attention of enemy aircraft. Seine House was also poorly situated in a valley which meant that battalion commanders were unable to view the battlefield as well.
I think it is fair to say that battalion level was inexperienced in an operational sense. Lieutenant Colonel Leslie Morshead, the commanding officer of the 33rd Battalion, was actually quite critical of his fellow battalion commanders. And he declared, in what I am sure he thought was an 'off the record' conversation with Charles Bean, that although Lieutenant Colonel Milne, the commanding officer of the 36th Battalion, was 'a game enough CO', Major McDowell, acting CO of the 35th Battalion, and Major Fry, acting CO of the 34th Battalion, seemed to have 'nothing of the right spirit'.
I would like to focus on McDowell because he is Major Henry Carr's superior officer and, unlike Morshead, who'd commanded his formation for 18 months, John McDowell was a temporary commander. But correspondence between McDowell and Lieutenant Colonel Goddard, who was the actual commanding officer of the 35th Battalion, suggests that the former was actually pretty good.
McDowell had completed the senior officers course at Aldershot, the commandant believing that McDowell 'would make a good commanding officer in time', although he was inclined at times to be a little too sure of himself, but that he would benefit from a six-month appointment as 2IC (second-in-command).
Circumstances, unfortunately, led to his appointment as temporary commander of the 35th Battalion after less then four months. And unfortunately for McDowell, First Passchendaele was his first operation as a battalion commander.
McDowell, like many other commanders involved in this operation, did not have an easy time of it. And his performance was vociferously challenged by Major Henry Carr during the Court of Enquiry. Marshalling the full weight of British Army doctrine behind him, Carr believed that practical control by the 35th Battalion Headquarters was not possible, seeing that it was located about 2,000 yards [1,800m] from the firing line.
Carr went on in a much more impassioned tone stating that 'Major McDowell did not accompany the battalion to the deploying point; did not see the companies into position himself nor send anyone else to do so; did not accompany the battalion over the top; did not move forward either then or subsequently and, as far as I can gather, did not at any time during the day of the attack go forward of the bulletproof HQ [Seine House] in which he had established himself the night previously'.
Carr was right to challenge McDowell's perceived inaction. Battalion commanders were expected to move forward with their unit. They were expected to establish their headquarters within the vicinity of the furthest captured objective. And of course this doctrine is correct in principle, but its applicability on a battlefield was often unfeasible and is a different matter entirely.
I think it is fair to say that local control could have been achieved by battalion commanders going forward, but it is difficult to assess how effective this would have been in the long term given the lack of appropriate communications. And I think communications would really mitigate against any potential effectiveness.
Turning to my final level of command this afternoon: company command. 1917 is an incredibly important year for the tactical level of command. It seized the publication of SS 143 and with it a revision of platoon tactics and organisation. Tactical decentralisation renews the emphasis on devolved command and the need for company and platoon commanders to rely to an even great extent on their own initiative.
This, of course, again, is fine in principle. However, within the 9th Brigade initiative and low-level command was seriously undermined, not only by the heavy casualties they sustained but also, again, by these incredibly poor communications.
The casualty rate, as I mentioned earlier, among officers in the 9th Brigade was approximately 70 per cent, and out of the 55 officers killed 15 of these were company commanders.
High officer casualties had the unfortunate effect of lessening the impact of local level command. This led to a reliance on the battalion commanders, leading to a centralisation of command back up the chain. But as I've mentioned owing to poor communications battalion commanders were unable to affect the course of the battle. So, what you get here is the beginning of something like a command vacuum on 12 October.
Communication, and I know because I keep banging on about it, but it was a massive problem particularly at company level. The experience of Major Giblin, an officer in the 40th Battalion in the 10th Brigade, offers a good example of this. Giblin sent a message at 8:40am informing his brigade headquarters that he did not have enough men to advance to the blue line. He had still received no reply to this message at 1:30 in the afternoon.
Captain Dixon, a company commander in the 35th Battalion, received only one message from his battalion during the course of the day. Major Henry Carr had 16 messages sent to him from the 35th Battalion. However, his decision to withdraw was given on his own initiative, based on the fact that he hadn't received any instructions from his battalion headquarters.
What's important to realise, aside from the fact that the communications were unreliable, is that Carr takes responsibility for the situation as he is experiencing it. He makes a command decision and again let's harp back to the guidance that is coming down from the very top of the Army about deference to the man on the spot who is there witnessing what is going on.
But to focus on Carr for the rest of this section. Up to the point of withdrawal, Carr's work had been excellent. He had shown 'considerable courage, endurance and good control during the advance'. The Court of Enquiry, unsurprisingly, revealed that Carr's lack of reconnaissance prior to withdrawal was a grave error. But Leslie Morshead, the president, was sympathetic to Carr's situation writing that 'I fully appreciate Major Carr's difficulties; that he had no officers and few men; that he was under the impression that the 34th Battalion were still on the red line and would consequently show a decided feature on which the men would pull up.' Unfortunately this wasn't the case.
The experience of Captain Alex Patterson, an officer in the 39th Battalion, 10th Brigade, offered a very interesting contrast to Major Carr's experience of First Passchendaele and one that is worth exploring. Patterson, similarly to Carr, was the only unwounded senior officer of his battalion or of his brigade. Patterson, in conference with junior officers, decides to withdraw to a line just in advance of the jumping off point. Both Patterson and Carr used their initiative, except Carr is rewarded with a Court of Enquiry whilst Patterson is promoted to major and recommended for a bar to his Military Cross. Such are the fortunes of war.
Initiative is a highly desirable trait, particularly at the tactical level of command. Second Army recognised this. They advocate that leaders must be taught to act quickly. However, poor communications depreciated initiative and encourage centralisation. This put commanders in the position of being obliged to act without any accurate knowledge of the situation on their flanks, in front of them, and of course behind them.
So to pull all this together. What I hope I've shown you this afternoon is that there's more to Passchendaele than the mud and the blood. It was a complex operation that suffered from a number of operational constraints and, owing to time, I've only been able to scratch the surface of just one of them.
Although Major Carr's actions on 12 October 1917 countered his official guidance coming down from division, they reveal an officer who used his own initiative based on the information available to him.
A pamphlet for young officers published in 1917 declared that 'the principle object of all tactical instruction is to train officers to act when they have no superior on the spot to refer to'. It encouraged officers to ask themselves: was the officer responsible for the order in possession of the main facts as I now know them to be when he issued it?
Carr knew more of the situation and his battalion or his brigade commander. His actions, I think, should therefore be commended. I don't think Major Carr's decision to withdraw in any way impacted on the brigade or the division's performance or its fighting reputation. In spite of poor preparation, poor communications, poor artillery support, faulty logistics and bad weather, the brigade performed as well as could or should be expected.
To me, First Passchendaele was a bloody phase of the 9th Brigade's learning curve, the lessons of which would influence its more successful performance, particularly in 1918. The brigade didn't fail on 12 October, but it paid a heavy price for an inevitable outcome.