CDG 56 – British Rifle Brigade in World War I, 1915
The May 2013 issue of Armchair General® presented the Combat Decision Game “British Rifle Brigade in World War I, 1915.” This CDG placed readers in the role of British Colonel George Handcock Thesiger, commander of 4th Battalion, the Rifle Brigade. Thesiger’s mission on the night of March 14-15, 1915, was to organize and lead the battalion in a counterattack to recapture key positions in Saint Eloi taken during a German attack several hours earlier, just before dark.
The crossroads village of Saint Eloi was located near the southern shoulder of the Ypres Salient, a 10-mile-wide by 6-mile-deep eastward bulge in the front line centered on the town of Ypres, Belgium. The terrain within the salient was mostly flat and open with a few scattered hills and small rises (generally 40-60 feet high) that provided excellent visibility for artillery observers and extensive fields of fire for machine guns. Saint Eloi sat on a 50-foot-high rise, and immediately south of the village was a 75-foot-high conical hill called “the Mound” formed from brickyard debris.
When the Germans captured Saint Eloi, they not only penetrated British front-line trenches and seized an important crossroads, they also gained important high ground from which to dominate the surrounding area. If 4th Battalion failed to retake the village, the entire British defense line in the salient’s southern shoulder would be at risk of collapse.
The key factor in World War I counterattacks to regain lost positions was time – it was vital to strike back as quickly as possible before the enemy could reorganize forces and consolidate gains. Any delay would give the opponent valuable time to strengthen fortifications, replenish ammunition supplies, and emplace machine guns and artillery forward observers.
Thesiger had to launch his battalion counterattack as soon as possible to capitalize on speed, surprise and cover of darkness. Unfortunately, his night counterattack lacked artillery support, and although the brigade commander, Brigadier General C.G. Fortescue, had indicated that other units from the brigade might eventually offer reinforcement, Thesiger knew he could not delay the counterattack while awaiting that possibility.
Thesiger decided to deploy A and C companies in a frontal attack against Saint Eloi and send D Company to strike the western flank trenches while holding B Company in reserve (COURSE OF ACTION TWO: FRONT AND FLANK ATTACK). Shortly after 4 a.m. on March 15, 4th Battalion advanced along the Voormezeele-Saint Eloi road under cover of darkness. A half-hour later, D company veered south and struck the enemy trench line. Catching the Germans still disorganized from their earlier attack, D Company quickly recaptured the position.
A and C companies ran into stiff resistance when they reached Saint Eloi at 4:45 a.m. A series of street barricades and strongpoints in buildings slowed the attackers, causing Thesiger to commit B Company at 5:15 a.m. Although the battalion finally recaptured Saint Eloi, the Germans beat back the 4th’s repeated attacks against the Mound. When daylight arrived, giving German artillery observers on the Mound visibility to call in accurate artillery fire, Thesiger halted further attacks and ordered his companies to hold fast on the ground they had already regained.
The battalion suffered over 100 casualties in the partially successful attack: 34 killed in action (including six officers), 63 wounded and six missing. Thesiger was promoted to brigadier general in May 1915 and given command of 2d Infantry Brigade. Four months later, on September 27, 1915, he was killed by German artillery fire during the Battle of Loos, France, while serving as acting major general in command of 9th (Scottish) Division. The remains of George Handcock Thesiger were never recovered, and his name is one of the 20,610 listed on the Loos memorial to the missing.
ACG judges based their selections for winning Reader Solutions and those receiving honorable mention on submissions that chose COURSE OF ACTION ONE: BATTALION ATTACK or those whose explanations demonstrated a solid understanding of the key principles of a World War I counterattack. Although Thesiger did not choose this plan, entailed striking immediately and with the full strength of the battalion, it would have given him the best chance to overpower Saint Eloi’s German defenders and would have allowed him to make the maximum effort as soon as possible – capitalizing on mass and momentum – against the Mound, the village’s dominant terrain feature. The trenches running east and west of the Mound were of only secondary importance since if the battalion had recaptured the Mound the trench positions would have been untenable.
The plan Thesiger chose, COURSE OF ACTION TWO: FRONT AND FLANK ATTACK, proved too weak for the battalion to retake both Saint Eloi and the Mound. D Company’s successful assault and capture of the western trench was largely irrelevant – indeed, it was counterproductive as it drained one-fourth of the battalion’s strength from the main attack to seize the village and crossroads and, most importantly, the Mound. Likewise, initially holding B Company in reserve served no useful purpose and unnecessarily delayed its commitment to combat at the place where it was needed most.
COURSE OF ACTION THREE: DOUBLE ENVELOPMENT fragmented and weakened the battalion attack. Although this plan likely would have resulted in the capture of both the western and eastern trenches, it could not guarantee that the most important positions – the village and the Mound – would subsequently fall. Moreover, this option split 4th Battalion into two elements separated by strong enemy positions and thereby put it at risk of being defeated in detail. Although the historical course of action (COA Two) resulted in only partial success, this plan (COA Three) likely would have ended in total failure.
After Action Report
Key Points For a World War I Counterattack
- TIME: Launch the counterattack as soon as possible to strike while the enemy is still disorganized.
- MAXIMUM EFFORT: Counterattack with all available forces for the best chance to recapture the lost position.
- MASS: Concentrate counterattacking forces against the lost position. Do not dissipate effort through unnecessary maneuvers against secondary objectives.
- MOMENTUM: Vigorously press the counterattack, maintain the speed of the advance and do not allow it to bog down.
- ENGAGEMENT: Rapidly overwhelm the enemy with superior force and firepower at the point of attack and then quickly seize the position.
- CONSOLIDATION: Quickly reorganize, reinforce and resupply in preparation to defend the recaptured position.