17 March 2008

Gough in command

Hmm, a month away. I've been involved in selling a house, which has meant going through my books, finding some to discard. While looking at some of them, I came across an account of General Sir Hubert Gough's activities on the first day of the German Operation Michael, March 21, 1918. It appeared in Martin Middlebrook's The Kaiser's Battle, published in 1978 by Allen Lane. Since we are so close to a round-number anniversary (the 90th), it seems worth looking at it.

I'll quote the key points.
At his headquarters at Nesle, fifteen miles behind the front, Gough had been woken by the distant roar of the German bombardment [which began at 0440]and he realised that 'it was so sustained and steady that it at once gave me the impression of some crushing, smashing power'....Gough went back to sleep for an hour, then got up, had breakfast and prepared to handle the greatest battle of his career. He had brought all of his own reserves well forward before the battle...To Gough's relief, GHQ immediately released [two nearby reserve divisions] for use.

When Gough had rung GHQ to ask for these two reserve divisions, he had spoken not to Haig, who was being briefed by Lawrence, but to Major-General J. H. Davidson, head of the Operations Section. Gough pointed out that even with the two reserve divisions would still be extremely vulnerable and he asked when he might receive further reinforcements...

Gough fretted at his headquarters for the rest of the morning. He nearly set out for a tour of his four corps headquarters but it was too early for this so he stayed put, working with his staff to scrape up makeshift fighting units from reinforcement camps and administrative units of the Fifth Army. Reports came in from corps commanders telling of heavy fighting in the Forward Zone....

Air reconnaissance during the early afternoon had confirmed that the roads and tracs behind the German lines were full of reserve divisions marching towards the battle. This information told Gough that the battle which had started that morning would be a prolonged one....

General Humbert, commander of the French Third Army, had arrived just before lunch to discuss the help that could be given by French units....

After lunch, Gough left Nesle by motor car to pay quick calls on his four corps commanders....Gough met [Lieutenant-General Sir Richard] Butler at a hastily-arranged rendezvous in the village of Beaumong-en-Beine to save driving the full distance to Butler's headquarters....

Leaving Butler, Gough continued his tour and met the remaining corps commanders....By the time he retured to his own headquarters, late in the afternoon, Gough had decided on his policy....it was more important to keep together what was left of his battered divisions in the south than to hold ground....Gough's staff sent out the orders...This was the last move that Gough was called upon to make in theis first day of the battle. After dinner that night, he spoke again to GHQ about the prospects for the next days' fighting. Again it was Lawrence, the Chief of Staff, to whom Gough spoke.

The contrast with what we read of General Joseph E Johnston's Bull Run experience is quite marked, highlighting the effect of industrialized warfare's much larger armies. Where Johnston personally engaged with officers who were ordered to the 'front line', and appears to have issued orders himself, Gough's job is much more managerial, much less directly involved in a combat. He is mainly a collector and transmitter of information.

A. He discusses the situation at the start and end of the day with GHQ, apparently to describe the resources he needs and the overall situation and to get approval for his intended course of action.

B. He collects and analyses information from his neighbour (the French general Humbert), and from his subordinates, as well as receiving reports passed up the chain of command by the aerial units. However, he does not intervene directly (at least from the information in Middlebrook's book) with commanders below the corps level.

C. He works with his staff to redistribute forces available in his rear areas to support combat operations.

D. He decides on an overall policy, but does not engage in more detailed prescription of what needs to be done.

A lot of my analysis is dependent on Middlebrook not omitting anything, but Gough does not appear to engage in any micromanagement during this crisis. It's also of interest that his corps commanders are based close enough to the army headquarters for all four of their headquarters to be within a motor car journey between the end of lunch and later afternoon. Presumably Gough had the right of way over other road traffic.

1 comment:

Charles said...

Have just stumbled across your blog after Googling "hubert gough operation michael".

I was prompted to find out more about these events after reading an article in today's Times, maybe you saw it?

I would be interested to hear your thoughts with regard to the article in question - it is by Lord Bramall and can be found by searching the Times website using '1918'.

Regards, Charles