Rawlinson and the 1917 amphibious operation

E8 of Collected Articles

Rawlinson and the ‘Unknown’ Amphibious Operation of 1917

Covering:
His military career, from Sandhurst to the Somme
The secret operation
The German assault
The Plan runs out of time
A competent General
An observation
Sources

His military career, from Sandhurst to the Somme

Sir Henry Seymour Rawlinson has been selected as the archetypal Great War blundering British general, as in ‘Oh, What a Lovely War’. But Maurice (1928), who served under Rawlinson as one of his Major-Generals, realised that the image developing in the 1920s was unfair. Though Rawlinson’s handling of the Somme battle after 14 July 1916 can be criticised, his leadership in the Advance to Victory in 1918 was excellent and his overall military and later career showed his competence.

His life story was typical of the Victorian upper class gentleman. His elderly father was the distinguished Assyriologist who unlocked the secrets of the Persian cuneiform inscriptions. Born 20 February 1864, he was sent to Eton where he became a keen sportsman. Though his father obtained for him a Queen’s India Cadetship at Sandhurst, he put effort into the qualifying exam and achieved twice the number of marks needed for normal entry.

As a young officer he visited the Khyber Pass before seeing active service in Burma, in the Sudan and at Ladysmith (where he arranged for four 12-pounder naval guns to be brought into the armed camp). He was a keen observer and prolific writer, carefully noting what the enemy did, the state of the countries through which marches were made, the managing of supplies and also recording casualties. Through his mother’s encouragement he sketched throughout his life, painting the Hunza Fort in northern India shortly before his death.

His prowess was recognised early and he became a staff officer in 1895, gaining the trust of the leading British Commanders, such as Lord Roberts, and in particular becoming firm friends with Henry Wilson. His father’s death that year gave him the baronetcy awarded to his father. He married Meredith (“Merrie”) Kennard in 1890 and she was his widow when he died in India on 28 March 1925 after failing to recover from an operation.

As the result of his Boer War experiences his military lessons included the need for “a properly organised staff system”, “better co-operation between our infantry and artillery” and “well-equipped machine-gun companies” (Maurice, 1928). In 1908 he supported the need for installing one machine-gun company per infantry brigade, but Treasury funds would not permit this. Thus it was a need not implemented until the British Expeditionary Force experienced the massive casualties of the Great War.

He spent the early years of the Twentieth Century as the youngest Commandant yet at the Royal Military Academy where he was the first to encourage the study of combined naval and military operations. In 1894, whilst looking over naval warships he had wondered how their gunnery optical instruments could be adapted for military cannons. After three years at Sandhurst he visited battlefield sites such as Port Arthur and countries ranging from Malaya to Russia and China to the United States.

Once the Great War began, he held increasingly important commands during the traumatic months of 1914, at Loos in 1915 (where he deplored the mis-use of the New Armies 21st and 24th Divisions) and on the Somme in 1916, leading the Fourth Army there. He conducted conferences before battles where meticulous plans were presented, and was a competent tactician as the dawn attack on the German Second Line along the Somme’s Bazentin Ridge of 14 July proved. However he did not have the opportunity to become a strategist.

The secret operation

Not involved in the battle of Arras, his command was put into reserve at the Doullens conference held on 7 May 1917. But this was not relegation because he found out two days later he was to be the military commander of a highly innovative and secret attack – the amphibious assault on the North Sea coast behind German lines near Nieuport, once the coming attack in the Ypres Salient had made sufficient progress. From there the advance would be to Bruges where the main German submarine depot on the Belgian coast was based.

Rawlinson was to plan the training of a special landing force drawn from his Fourth Army. Strickland’s 1st Division were to be the assault troops. Admiral Bacon was appointed the Royal Navy commander with whom Rawlinson would co-operate in this combined operation. Conferences were held in Dunkirk and in the Thames Estuary where the naval preparations were being made. Rawlinson moved his head quarters to Terminus Malo just outside Dunkirk on 2 July and Haig issued him with formal orders on 5 July. By 18 July all troops needed for the special training were isolated in a highly secure camp at Le Clipon, some 6 miles south west of Dunkirk.

The main innovation was to be the use of tanks being landed from specially adapted naval craft. Although the sea wall was of 1 in 2 gradient, it was topped by a vertical wall 2 feet 6 inches high, too high for tanks to climb over. So special ramps were designed for fitting on to the front of the tanks (reminiscent of the additions to tanks in the D-Day landings of 1944).

The German assault

However the Germans had noted British troops replacing the French defenders in the Dunes area of the Western Front and ‘smelt a rat’. On 10 July, taking advantage of a storm at sea that displaced the protection given by the British naval guns, their Marines attacked in strength along the east bank of the Yser Canal. Heavy German shellfire resulted in the sand being blown into the air clogging the defenders’ machine-guns and rifles. Two British battalions were virtually destroyed (Wilson and Hammerton, 1918, Giles, 1987). The German gains of land now made a combined assault from the sea more complicated to plan and implement.

The Plan runs out of time

By 4 August, Rawlinson began to doubt whether the scheme would be implemented because of the unsatisfactory progress being made by the assaults in the Salient (the battle now known as Third Ypres). With the amphibious operation dependent on high tides, the windows of opportunity were fast closing. August and September passed with no signs of a break out from the Salient. Thus in mid October, because of the limited progress, the scheme was abandoned. On 21 October the 1st Division marched away without having had the opportunity to exploit their new skills. And Rawlinson left for the Salient to take charge of winding down the Ypres campaign, by merging the battle-depleted 2nd and 5th Armies. Further duties, such as at Versailles, eventually led to his commanding performance in the Advance to Victory.

A competent General

Rawlinson was a characteristic British General imbued with the military culture of the late Victorian age, influenced by Lord Kitchener to be reserved and even cold in his professional duties (as was Haig), nevertheless he was used in furthering the delicate liaisons with the French commanders and himself claimed to have a sense of humour (Maurice, 1928). He had a very good working relationship with Sir John Monash, the Commander of the Australian Corps; of such value during late 1918. The next year he was asked to sort out the British involvement in north Russia and commanded the successful retreat from Murmansk in the October.

Although his military record can be claimed to be patchy (because of the 1915 and 1916 campaigns), he was one of the few leading BEF officers to hold command throughout the Great War. Between 1917 and 1919 he showed the management ability to successfully reconstruct armies damaged by other British commanders (for France, Petain did the same) . Recognised by a grateful Nation in the title of Lord Rawlinson of Trent, he went to India as the Commander-in-Chief. Still very active as a polo player, his unexpected death perhaps changed the course of Anglo-Indian history. His widow sought return of his body to England. Given full honours by the Indian Government, his body was brought back to be buried in the churchyard of his home village of Trent, near Yeovil in Dorset. His title died with him.

An observation

This innovative amphibious operation remains largely unknown. Neither of the recent major books by Gilbert (1994) and Keegan (1998) record it.

Given the primitive technology of the 1917 tanks, for this operation to achieve success would have been less feasible than the operation on the Normandy coast in June 1944. Perhaps eminent historians consider it an unnecessary diversion from the main events of 1917 and hence not worth commenting upon.

Sources

Gilbert, M. (1994) First World War, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London.
Giles. J. (1970) Flanders Then and Now, Leo Cooper.
Keegan, J. (1998) The First World War, Hutchinson.
Maurice, F.B. (1928) The Life of General Lord Rawlinson of Trent, Cassell.
Wilson, H.W. and Hammerton, J.A., editors (1918) The Great War:
The Standard History of the World-Wide Conflict, The Amalgamated Press
Limited, London, Vol 10, pp.435-6, reprinted in 1999 by Trident Press
International.

Originally presented to the BCMH Summer Conference held at Duxford , 18 July 2004.