Herbert Plumer and Hubert Gough were two very different types of military commanders. Plumer was Officer Commanding the II Army based within the Ypres Salient for the bulk of World War One while Gough had made swift progress up the promotions ladder – much to the consternation of some of his compatriots – and was given command of the V Army. The two styles of command came out into the open during the Allied attack on German positions to the southeast of Ypres in the summer of 1917. While a major success at places such as Messines Ridge, some military historians, such as Robin Neillands, argue that if Gough had followed his instructions for what the troops under his command were required to do in the overall strategic plan, the attack would have had a more devastating impact on the German front line and could have led to a shortening of the war.
Haig’s overall strategic plan for the Western Front in 1917 was quite clear. The Admiralty wanted him to clear the Belgian coast of any German occupation – especially the towns Zeebruge and Ostend – as this would have stopped German U-boats from using their submarine bases there. It seems that Haig was happy to accommodate this requirement. Secondly, Haig believed that an Allied success in the Ypres Salient gave the Germans based near there few options as to what to do – retreat being the most obvious. This lack of options was less true with regards to German land forces based elsewhere along the Western Front. From Haig’s point of view, once a retreat started, there was always the potential for it turning into a rout. Also a retreating army would have been a much easier target for Haig’s cavalry regiments, which had spent months effectively operating as infantry units within the Salient.
Haig’s plan was based around an attack by two large armies. The first was the II Army commanded by General Herbert Plumer. Plumer’s plan of attack on Messines Ridge was meticulously thought out. Plumer was acutely conscious of the casualties that had occurred in the Ypres Salient during the war and his byword for this attack was ‘waste metal, not flesh’. He even had tests done to time how long it would take for the debris to land that would be thrown in the air by the huge explosions that occurred at the very start of the attack – just in case it could be harmful to the infantry on the ground when they rushed the German defences.
The other army that carried out Haig’s attack was based north of Plumer’s. This was Hubert Gough’s V Army – the ‘Northern Army’ – some historians refer to Plumer’s army as the ‘Southern Army’ as opposed to the II Army.
Part of Plumer’s army based at the northern tip of its front line was tasked by Haig with capturing Gheluvelt Plateau. They were to be assisted by men from Gough’s V Army that were based at the very southern tip of his front line. Therefore Haig envisaged the taking of Gheluvelt Plateau as a joint operation between the II and V armies. He also saw its success as being key to the whole attack as success in the north and south but failure in the middle sector would have left the Allies advancing east but leaving behind them a substantial German force that could attack them in their rear if not successfully dealt with. The day before the attack Haig contacted Gough and urged him to prosecute an energetic assault as he anticipated that Plumer would attack in this manner.
Who was responsible for what happened next is difficult to know but Haig’s anticipated attack never occurred. Plumer never wrote about his wartime experiences nor did he discuss them in a public manner. After the war Gough did write about his experiences in World War One but many saw the book – ‘Fifth Army’ – as nothing more than an attempt to explain what he did as a commander. Therefore there has never been a clear explanation as to what happened.
However, it does seem that Gough did not believe that he should share the attack on Gheluvelt Plateau with Plumer. He saw it as an attack that could only be done by the V Army. His close relationship with Haig may have been one of the reasons to explain what happened next.
Men from II and VIII Corps of Plumer’s II Army went on scouting patrols on the Gheluvelt Plateau on June 8th. They came up against strong German resistance. Plumer asked Haig for a three-day period during which he could bring up artillery and more men to launch the anticipated major assault on the plateau. Haig did not support the idea that there should be a three-day delay in the attack. Ironically Plumer was a victim of his own success. The attack and advance beyond Messines had been a huge success. The Allies advanced over 9000 metres in the day and actually went beyond their target for the first day of the attack. This to Haig was where success could be found – continuous assaults so that the enemy never had time to consolidate or counter-attack. Now Plumer was asking for three days to organise the attack on the plateau – three days during which, Haig assumed, the Germans would thoroughly strengthen their defences there.
Haig’s response on June 9th was to transfer II and VIII Corps to Gough’s V Army. Haig ordered an attack on Gheluvelt Plateau “to secure the ridge east of Ypres”. The attack never went ahead.
On June 14th, Haig’s senior officers met at Lillers. Here Gough announced that he had concluded that an attack on the plateau would have placed the troops involved in great danger such were the extent of the German defences. Gough argued that if his army failed on the plateau, Ypres itself would have been in danger of falling to the Germans. As the heart of the Allied campaign in the Salient, Ypres could not be allowed to fall and to some there was a great deal of logic in what Gough argued. Others, however, had other views about his decision that were not in his favour. It would appear that Haig listened to what Gough had to say and supported his belief that both V and II Armies should coordinate an attack on the plateau “at the later date”.
Neillands refers to this decision as a “tragic mistake”. Evidence shows that the Germans greatly feared a successful Allied attack on Gheluvelt Plateau, as the Allies would then have held the bulk of the higher ground around the German armies based there. With this advantage Allied artillery could have been devastating against entrenched German positions and they may well have been forced to retreat – just as Haig had previously planned.