The Battle of Hamel, fought on the morning of the 4th July 1918, was a highly successful attack and an important victory for the British Expeditionary Force. All the day’s objectives were captured on schedule and with very low casualties.
However, Hamel had been a very small battle, involving just 10 battalions of infantry all drawn from the Australian Corps. In mid-1918 the BEF consisted of over 500 infantry battalions spread across 18 Corps. They would all benefit from knowing what had and hadn’t worked at Hamel. Find out more about it here.
Learning in the BEF
The idea that the British Army of the First World War blindly bashed away at the German defences for four years, and that commanders made no attempt to learn lessons from their experiences or change tactics in response to developments on the battlefield is a myth.
Throughout the war, but particularly from mid-1916 onwards, the British constantly analysed battles and operations to determine what had worked and what hadn’t, and to draw useful lessons for the future. This process of analysis and distribution of lessons soon led to major changes in how the BEF was organised and fought.
Hundreds of training manuals were published and continually updated throughout the war. Perhaps two of the most significant were December 1916’s SS135 “Instructions for the Training of Divisions for Offensive Action” and SS143 “Instructions for the Training of Platoons for Offensive Action,” published in February 1917.
SS135 is a larger and more complex document (understandably, as it applies to the approximately 10,000 man Division rather than the 40 man Platoon), covering the use of reserves, communications, mortars, resupply etc., whereas SS143 concentrates on tactics for attacking different objectives and on formations for movement across the battlefield. However both lay out simple tactics, techniques and procedures to adopt during attacks.
These are written as instructions, with much use of ‘should’ or ‘must’ in the text, however there was an acceptance that they couldn’t hope to give all the answers. As the Introduction to SS143 made clear: “It is not possible to lay down a correct line of action for all situations which may arise on the battlefield, but it is hoped that a careful study of the instructions herein contained may assist subordinate commanders to act correctly in any situation.”
The analysis of Hamel was therefore part of a well-oiled machine, which we can see from the speed at which the manual was published. The battle took place on the 4th July, and SS218 “Operations by the Australian Corps against Hamel, Bois de Hamel and Bois de Vaire” was published later that same month.
Just fourteen pages long, SS218 is a simple to read, easily understandable report on the Battle of Hamel. It is divided into 81 paragraphs of varying length. They cover the planning, preparation and conduct of the battle, followed by a more detailed description of the parts played by the various arms.
These include the Infantry, Artillery (including sub-sections on the Barrage, the use of Gas and Smoke shells and a summary of ammunition expenditure), Machine Guns, Tanks, the Royal Air Force and the distribution of Maps. Two Appendices give information on the movement rates of the tanks as they moved up before the battle, and on the amounts and types of supplies carried forwards by Supply Tanks.
SS218 is essentially a narrative summary of what happened at Hamel, what worked, and what didn’t. It isn’t a training manual in the sense that it doesn’t explain how to carry out any of these actions or require the reader to adopt them.
Indeed paragraph 3 reminds the reader that “It is important, in drawing deductions from this action, to bear in mind the local and special conditions.”
The concluding paragraph, number 81, provides 7 reasons to which “The success of the attack was due.” Like the rest of the manual, they are presented as factual statements, however to the intended audience the subtext of a sentence such as “The complete surprise of the enemy, resulting from the manner in which the operation had been kept secret up till zero hour” will have been clear.
The section of SS218 that covers the Tanks includes eighteen paragraphs. One details the distribution of tanks to the various Australian units. Another lists the Tank Corps’ losses, just five tanks, all of which were recovered, and thirteen men wounded.
Paragraph 67 offers an assessment of the rate of advance. At Hamel the creeping artillery barrage moved forwards at “100 yards in three minutes”, however “it is now considered that…Mark V tanks could have worked just as efficiently at a rate of 100 yards in two minutes. This would also probably have suited the infantry better.”
The improved manoeuvrability of the new Mark V is noted. Paragraph 69 tells us that it “enabled the tanks to drive over the enemy. There are many instances of machine guns being run over and the detachments being crushed.” This was “quite a feature of the tank attack.”
Paragraph 77 outlines eight conclusions arrived at after analysis of the role of the tanks at Hamel. To give two examples:
Point (d) makes clear the need for “a fresh [tank] unit” to be provided if “the infantry require tanks for immediate support after a successful operation.” This is because the crews that had supported the initial attack would be “physically incapacitated from fighting efficiently until they have been rested.”
Point (g) is a lesson about how to co-ordinate tanks, artillery and infantry. It states that “Tanks, even under a creeping barrage, should precede the infantry so as to subdue machine guns…before they inflict casualties on the infantry. Tanks can get closer to the artillery barrage than the infantry…as the [shrapnel] bullets which drop on the heads of infantry and inflict casualties do not affect the tanks.”
The lessons of Hamel influenced the planning for the much larger Battle of Amiens. In particular, the point about tanks leading the infantry was applied with great success.
The Learning Process
The British Army went through a constant learning process during the First World War. Lessons from the battles of 1915 were applied on the Somme the next year, lessons from here fed into planning for Passchendaele and Cambrai in 1917, and these influenced the conduct of operations in 1918, especially the final advance to victory of the Hundred Days.
The first historians to try and highlight this called it the ‘learning curve’, but more recent work tends not to use this term, as a curve suggests a constant, steady improvement. In reality it wasn’t a smooth process, sometimes the wrong conclusions were drawn, mistakes were made and learning in some areas was slower than in others. However there’s no question the BEF went through a learning process during the war. Its soldiers and commanders were constantly innovating, experimenting, and coming up with new and better ways to overcome the Germans and win.
Written by Ian Hudson, Research Assistant