In this Mentioned in Dispatches podcast, historian Rob Thompson talks about what got him interest in the First World War, and how he became fascinated by a subject so many others found boring - logistics. He then weaves together a narrative that shows how successful 'logistics', known only as 'supply and transport' at the time, fed the BEF munitions and more at Messines and then Third Ypres in 1917, and how good logistics were fundamental to ultimate success, or failure.
Gunners of the Royal Garrison Artillery unloading shells from a light railway train at Brielen, 3 August 1917.
Tom Thorpe [00:00:16] Welcome to Mentioned Dispatches, the podcast from The Western Front Association, with me Dr. Tom Thorpe. The WFA is the UK's largest Great War history society. We are the key to understanding the Great War and have over 50 branches worldwide. For more information, visit our website at WesternFrontAssociation.com. It is the 22nd of March 2021 and this is episode number 200. To mark the double centenary of the podcast, I'm joined by historian Rob Thompson. Rob is an expert on logistics and supply during the Great War. He talks to me today about the British planning and supply for the Messines and Third Ypres Campaigns in 1917. He spoke to me over the interweb from his home in England. Rob, welcome to the Dispatches podcast. Could you start by telling us about yourself and how you became interested in the Great War?
Rob Thompson [00:01:10] How did I become interested in the Great War? I went to university as a mature student. I had no interest in great wars or wars of any type. But I did a politics and history degree and I was really interested in the politics side. My interest was actually Italian politics post World War II - 1947 onwards. Anyway, I went into the history element because I thought that would give me a solid background. Various modules I picked didn't run in the second year and so I got my fifth choice module which was '20th century military history'. My initial reaction was "Oh god no, not the boys with their toys". Awful, please god, help me. I went to the first seminar with a Professor Martin Alexander. Brilliant bloke. He was every inch what you would expect a military historian to be ... and he asked for a volunteer to do the first presentation on the First World War the following week. And since I was a mature student, I saw a lot of 19 ... 20 year olds staring at their shoes. And I thought, well, you get the most slack if you do this, you know, first, so I'll do it. Yeah. And I, I [thought it] was going to be pretty straight forward - lions, donkeys, all that kind of thing. And I started reading John Bourne's book, Professor John Bourne's book 'Britain in the Great War', and it started to challenge just about everything. And after that, I just got suckered in.
Tom Thorpe [00:02:34] So we're going to talk about logistics today. Could you tell us what logistics mean?
Rob Thompson [00:02:39] What does logistics mean? It's probably easier to start with the British Army's definition of logistics back in 1914, which is they didn't have one. They simply got logistics and transportation later on that was increased to supply and transportation. It was the Americans who actually began to use the term logistics, the Greek logos - logical. And logistics is [what] I describe as everything bar the shouting. I'm going to look at some definitions, one of which is 'all means required to supply and maintain an army in the field' that covers a huge amounts, as it were. And so the best definition when we look at the complexity of a logistical supply system, when we take into account things like warehousing, ports, shipping, you know, what type of crane you've got, how good your roads are, what is your capacity of your railway? We begin to realise that ... it's something much, much bigger than merely supply and transportation. It is 'everything required to, to move and maintain an army in the field' - or if you like, 'everything bar the shouting'.
Tom Thorpe [00:03:51] Now, it is said that amateurs study tactics, while professionals study logistics. Is there any truth to this saying? And why has there been so little academic and scholarly attention given to logistics, especially in the study of the Great War?
Rob Thompson [00:04:04] [The] swift answer to that is 'yes'. Professionals do talk logistics, amateurs do talk tactics. Military history is littered with commanders who have no idea of what they're asking for from the 20th century, which is the era, if you like, of or know, of the mass warfare and technology warfare itself. We see things like, you know, Hitler sweeping his hand across a map when we're looking at attacking Russia. You know, I'm thinking there are zero counts of anything that is going on there. How do you move this? Where are the rail lines? You know, what's the conditions at this part of the year or that part of the year. We see again, with the Americans, you know, that they failed dramatically to understand logistics until they learnt the lesson that logistics is everything. Without fuel, without food, without armaments, without shells, without bullets you don't have a war at any level. Now you may dream of bolting through to the Dardanelles, or you may dream of driving up through Italy or defeating a Montgomery in North Africa. But unless you've got the fuel and the trucks - the horses to do that, you're on a hiding to nothing. You can look at, for example, the German Spring Offensive. It is clear why this fails, why it can't punch through in any of its forms because simply they took no notice of logistics whatsoever. It's interesting to note that after the 22nd of March 1918, around the 21st of March, the average German infantryman was down to seven bullets for his weapon.
Tom Thorpe [00:05:40] So why has there been so little academic study of this, especially during the First World War?
Rob Thompson [00:05:46] Frankly, because it's boring. It's very technical. You know, when I look at a war diary from, say, a division of a brigade or a battalion of infantry. Yeah, it's full of derring-do. It's full of either ... loud explosions going on, etc.. If you look at the corresponding diary of the divisional assistant adjutant and quartermaster general, it's talking about the fact that this particular part for a gun isn't particularly good, or it's talking about schedules of delivery. It's just simply dull. I mean ... well, does anybody think about how electricity arrives at their house ... when they flip the switch on? No, just flip the switch. They want to watch TV. They don't want to talk about or understand what goes on behind the scenes to produce those images. So simply, because it's boring, it's dull, it's unexciting.
Tom Thorpe [00:06:38] But as hopefully we're going to discover, it's absolutely vital. So we're going to talk about the BEF's planning and logistics during the third battle of Ypres in 1917. Were the BEF any good at this up to ... the beginning of the battle, say, before the battle? Had they ... done well in this? Between 1914 and 1917?
Rob Thompson [00:06:58] In 1914, it was a bit of a shambles, but we only had a very small army. We were mobile and we were designed to be a mobile army. 1915 sees a period of what E.M.Brown described as ad hocism, which is ... solutions dreamt up on the hoof to deal with that problem there and then. This kind of approach came to a head in the Battle of the Somme in 1916. I always find it quite ironic that had we managed to break through those German lines, we still couldn't have done anything because we simply lacked the logistic capacity to be able to drive through and maintain any kind of assault. So in late 1916, Sir Eric Geddes, who was the head of North Eastern Railway, was draughted in as an expert because in effect, what you've got is a civil system, you have a static front, you have therefore fixed lines. And what you need therefore is a civilian who can understand and operate that and integrate. He came in, he integrated everything from up to what's known as the Army line. So he did all the canals, he did the railways ... and he did ports so on and so forth. So we have an integrated system. His writ ends, though, at the line of the army. Or if you like the forward zone or the fighting zone. There it's traditional systems that take over. Don't confuse tradition with stultifying our failure to keep up with technology. When the British army went on ... to war in 1914, it did so with the most advanced supply chain in the world because it had specifically interpolated into its motor transport, which gave it a flexibility of an extra 30 miles in any given direction. So we were very good, logistically. But it took time to get things right. However, it's not just logistics night, it's their relationship with engineering and also with battle that matters. And indeed, we can see that the British, the BEF logistics system began to collapse, certainly from 31st July onwards. And even before that, there have been major problems because of failure to really focus on the concomitant of logistics, which is engineering. No road, no movement, no rail, no movement. That simple, really.
Tom Thorpe [00:09:21] So we're going to look at how the BEF planned for the battles of Messines and Third Ypres during the summer of 1917. Before we get onto that, can you tell us what the strategic intent for this operation was and what it aimed to achieve.
Rob Thompson [00:09:35] Right. Well, the strategic intent was logistical. At the end of the day, the purpose of it was to be three separate campaigns, in effect, all of which made up the Flanders Campaign the first part of which was to secure the southern end of the Passchendaele - sorry the Staden-Passchendaele, Messines, the battle of Messines. The idea was to secure that ridge. It was to prevent observation the Germans had over the main thrust of the battle, which will come from the north, from Ypres itself. The second part of it was the main attack from Ypres. So Messines was a local operation just designed to go so far. It did and did no more than that to deny German observation and to put their guns on a redeveloped plateau under the eyes of the British. The main assault, which was supposed to come out of the Ypres. Its task was to get beyond the ridge that the ridge, sorry, that was tactical in its essence, but the strategic elements of it was to drive over the ridge, cut the railway line at a place called Rouliers, which is only a few miles beyond the reverse slope of the ridge. You can see it if you go behind Passchendaele itself. And it's a really easy run down there, no complex ridge systems or anything like that. And if you've cut that back, you've now just cut one third of Germany's capacity to supply north east Belgium. The second part of that was to drive through beyond that, to cut the rail line to Thourout. Once you've done that, the Germans cannot supply north west Belgium - its force in northwest Belgium. Then there was to be an assault up the coast in combination with some amphibious landings, which was to drive the Germans out, basically to hurry them along, as it were, you know, that they simply could not maintain their forces any more. And this just to push them along a little bit, they ... freed up the Belgian coast freighters. They broke out all the rest of it. And most importantly of all, it would have formed a flank. So it had grand strategic objectives, as it were. And it was a ... very sound idea. Conversely, as well, it's about protecting strategic elements for Britain. In 1914 when Falkenhayn drove so hard to Ypres. The reason for that is, once you move west of Ypres, there's no defensive line. I mean, you can dig some trenches if you want, but there's no real defensive line. And the Germans get beyond that when they've got the Channel Coast. If they've got the Channel Coast, they just destroyed 200 years of British foreign policy, which is designed specifically to make sure no European power can dominate the English channel that is our strategic flank without control of the English Channel. Britain can be strangled. It begins to start losing its empire. It's wide open to attack. So it's important either way. So it's basically one of the few places on the Western Front where the war can be won or lost.
Tom Thorpe [00:12:33] Tell us about the logistical planning for this campaign that the British aim to start in the summer of 1917.
Rob Thompson [00:12:38] The logistical planning, it depends on which part of the operation we're looking at. To begin with, Messines. Messines had been subject to a good deal of controversy because really it's about General Plumer. Now I know that General Plumer is everybody's favourite general. We know that Messines was a superstar event. However, the reality is somewhat different. The planning for an attack at Messines and the area actually began in 1914, even as before the front had settled down. There were plans about some form of counterattack in this area. In 1915, the decision was made that once we got up to strength and this would definitely be our area of attack. 1916 comes along. We've got the Somme and indeed the Somme is a major problem. Haig never wanted to attack there but he was required to join the junction of the British and the French army. His focus had always been on Messines. In 1917, we begin to see that after the failure of the Nivelle offensive, you know, Haig, can pretty much do as he pleases. Lloyd George is in the doghouse. So he continues that. So effectively the planning and also the infrastructure for the logistical support of Messines had been going on in practice since the beginning of 1916. You know, we would look at the mines of Messines. You know, they would begin in 15, late 15 and then go through in 1916 and then added to in 1917. Railway tracks had been laid throughout 1916. 1917 was a huge increase in the amount of roads. Roads had been built, so on and so forth. Warehousing further back and improving the place. We had innumerable rail heads that had been built and we even had a light railway system. So the planning, logistical planning for Messines was absolutely first class, though it was to some degree accidental, as it were. The problem begins at Messines with, if you like, the capacity of Britain to produce. So more on is one statistic that really stands out for me and that is the bulk allotment of shells for Messines. Remember, Messines is a minor sub-operation that's its tasks on the bulk allotment of shells. High explosive shells for Messines were 144,000 tonnes. I'm not saying that all of that was fired, but if we look at that colossal scale and we start adding on to that mortar ammunition and small arms on the ground, remember, a machine gun fires 500 rounds a minute, 2 minutes fire is a thousand rounds. And that's a box that weighs 88 lb, as it were. Then we have all the signals equipment. The burying of signals cable in deep trenches, all the palaver required and it is absolutely colossal. At the same time, as well, after Derek Geddes has settled in and created this thing called GHQ transportation, there was a big push to remove motor transport from the system because the amount of fuel, which is now mean, the amount of motor transport was just increasing exponentially because it's so useful and everything was going to be done by main gauge railway and light railway. In the event if you look at Nine Corps, for example, it sent all its lorries back, then very rapidly got them forward again in order to provide everything. So things were a little bit wobbly simply because of the sheer scale of what's required. One of the problems with overwhelming artillery and this is where it integrates with operational methodology thought and development. One of the big problems there is if you are going to assemble 2000 artillery pieces, you know, at least near one third to a half of which are heavy, then you're going to do two things. One, you're going to suck up an enormous amount of material applied, which means your logistical system will be working at full power. And secondly, you're going to annihilate everything in front of you because you're using annihilatary fire. That's what manages. You can get forward, you can then consolidate. And so at Messines, we begin to see pre-existing strains really coming through, starting to come through. One of the problems in Massena is because it's so loaded, it's misunderstood. So, I mean, even in logistical terms, for example, in hiding your roads and railways out of an enemy site, they've got enormous advantages with Mount Kemmel, which is, you know, 120 metres high, about twice the height of the ridge. And then you've also got Hill 63 just to the south as well, where you've got Hyde Park Corner there, which is a major transport node and it's well out of reach of the Germans, they can't. It's very difficult to drop anything in there, as it were. So you've got a lot of advantages of Messines and so in effect it's a bit of an easy run and and it's noticeable once you get beyond the initial ridge line, the forward defense is on the forward slope and then the defense is actually all the ridgeline. So you're moving back towards the east of them, which lies at the back and towards the back of the ridge, that's when the bulk of casualties occur. Now everybody thinks that Messines was done in a day. It wasn't. It began on June the seventh. It wasn't finished until June the 14th. So we see problems beginning to occur. The problem is, you know, supplying it from the rear. Okay. So this is the nominal army line. That's quite simple. You know, that's not a problem. However, trying to with a front that's very difficult next problem you've got and this will be exposed very much during the battle of Ypres proper is engineering. We were woefully inadequate when it came to engineering, which meant we were woefully inadequate with roads forward, roads forward, a light, railway lines, so on and so forth. The engineers. We think about it, you've got a division, that's 18,000 men at the time, at least nominally, and they have three field companies of Royal Engineers. When they went to war in 1914, they had two. So the expansion of engineers at this tactical level was the increase of one company. The company has about 175 men. So. So you've then got the next problem of where is your labour coming from? You think about what's required just to build, just for example, accommodation for one 10 man crew for say an eight inch howitzer. You know, we're looking at over 300 tons of materials that need to be humped up there and done. And that gets done by the men. And increasingly, the men themselves are unable to train because they're required for working party duty, working party fatigue. The conditions at Messines were ideal. You have time to provide everything you have time to build all your infrastructure. The objective was very limited indeed. And so, you know, it looks like a great victory. However, there are problems underneath. It's a bit like the house I bought, it looks like a great, lovely, old Victorian place. And so you start peeling back the wallpaper or you start looking at the roof, you know, it's all beginning to crumble underneath.
Tom Thorpe [00:19:38] So does the campaign really start to break down once they sort of launch the third epoch proper from, you know, the end of July into August and through September.
Rob Thompson [00:19:48] Yes. Yes, it does. It's not just the fault of Messines. You've got longer term issues occurring as well. You've got a structural problem with engineering. You've got the fact that trying to comb out the Army Service Corps who are responsible for supply because of the number of maybe more and more infantry, you also have this failure to concentrate on roads. Now to Plumer's credit. He was very, very keen on concentrating on roads. You made it quite clear. That is a choice between getting supplies up or getting casualties out. The casualties will have to wait. He even created a kind of emergency road mending squad, and they were all in red lorries, 24 lorries carrying, you know, macadam, soiling, etc., etc., for repair of roads. It could get anywhere on the battlefield within 10 minutes and they could fill any shellhole in the road within 20 minutes. Because keeping those roads open to keep transport flowing, to get everything materials up there is everything when it comes to Third Ypres though, You see an awful lot of wear of guns coming from as far back as the Somme when we began to get at least a reasonable amount of ammunition. And indeed in May of 1917, the Director of Ordnance at the War Office had said effectively, we're going to have to make a choice very soon. Either we can repair the guns we've got or we can build new guns, but we cannot do both. We are beginning to reach capacity. And it's interesting, in the first part of the Messines bombardment, there was a very strict daily quota on how many shells could be fired in order to maintain the life of the guns. It was a kind of return to 1915, in effect, and it's noticeable, especially in early June, because even as the battle began on the 7th of July, the beginning to move stock from machines up towards Ypres itself, which is an unbelievable task when we consider the size of the area, what's got to be moved there? Even there, you're starting to see major problems occurring. Like Motor transports being handed over and it's not being serviced. It's not maintained. Now, the maintenance of these vehicles is very, very important because if you don't maintain them, they're not like a modern vehicle. They won't just continue to run and run and run running. Who's got a bleeping light that a service is due like on my car. No, these require an awful lot of maintenance every day. Just to give you an idea is that, you know, in cold weather, the entire radiator and the cooling system has to be drained every single night and then be refilled in the morning. And that's just one element. So Messines put everything under strain. The next problem you've got is that Ypres is not Messines. Ypres sits in an amphitheatre at very low level. You can supply it from the same rail heads as before. So I've got the same main rail stations as before about you. And also you can supply it from Poperinge, but it is far more open to German attack and this is a much, much, much bigger operation. So there was some degradation of Britain's ability to fight after Messines. It's not serious enough to have dislocated the entire operation, but we can see the problems beginning to pile up. One of the big problems was light railway, which is meant to be the saviour and indeed it looks like the saviour of most academics believes to say that if you start digging down to those people who actually had to run light railway, you find that actually it's not very efficient at all. One of its problems, for example, if you look at statistics of how much they managed to deliver, it looks fantastic. And so you realise that a good chunk of that material went out because the light railways were late to the working party that was there to load it. I've waited and then gone back and gone back to its original yard again, then go back out again and that load was come to three times. So the actual delivery tends to dot on the date of the delivery. And it's interesting to note that at Messines every single position and every single corps ended up taking between 50 and 75% of its ammunition by motor transport. This, in turn, is destroying the road. Because you want a road. Yeah, you can use a German 5.9 inch gun or you can use a three tonne Thornicroft lorry which is far more effective. Remember these roads, they were designed really for very light capacity. You know, you've got quite a number of, you know, metal to roads, pave roads in the Flanders area. But they were never, ever designed to deal with an army of such a huge size. Now everybody thinks the front is static. Once you move back behind those trenches, it's movement all the time. All the time everything's being moved. So getting everything into position was tremendously difficult. Maintaining the roads is immensely difficult. And commanders do not think about road stones and they don't think about big slab roads and they don't think about diversions until effectively the idea that the crap hits the fan, as it were. It's only afterwards that they got. So it was already beginning to look precarious just before Gough's attack on the 31st.
Tom Thorpe [00:24:57] So how does the limitations in the logistical system that you've outlined influence the rest of the battle from August through to September and into November?
Rob Thompson [00:25:05] Well, to begin with, ... Gough's attack on the 31st Pilkem Ridge and his drive north we can argue about that to the cows come home was he biting off too much but his plan did have the merit of being logistically a lot lighter than the later assaults of Plummer. The reason being that it is doing bite and hold operations just like Plumer is, but his bite is much bigger. However, he runs out and outruns his supply lines. So one of the problems you've got on the 31st isn't just the weather. It's the outrunning of supply lines. It's noticeable that when you look towards the evening of the 31st and you look on the first and the 2nd of August, you have big supply problems building up. You have units at the front who simply don't have the grenades that they need, or the rifle grenades or machine guns. And they're starting to withdraw and pull back and the line stabilised. Same thing happens again on the 18th. Remember also there is such a thing as the Germans and they have very much strengthened their lines. Very ... much indeed. People often say why the large gap between Messines and the assault on the 31st of August, which allowed the Germans to build up their defensive power in this area? The answer is you've got to move everything. Second Army to Fifth Army. You have to move everything from First and third, Third army out through Second army into Fifth army. And then, of course, you've got the coastal assault to be able to take about Fourth Army 'Operation Hush'. So effectively, it's the same as those little puzzles you could get as a kid, little square. You slide around with numbers and you have to get the numbers in order because you've got so little movement, a colossal amount of material and a colossal number of men all being moved. I'm surprised that there was any space at all. I wasn't toppling into the channel, as it were. Then you've got the weather. The weather does screw things up. However, the weather is ... it was Napoleon who said of Flanders that it was the mud that was the fifth element. And so it's an engineering problem. And this is where Britain, the BEFs failure to place engineering central to operations comes comes into a problem. 1915, there was a memo sent out from GHQ and hence forth operations are planned around artillery and engineering. The artillery is dealt with, the engineering never is. So this becomes a major problem when we moved to Plumer's assaults from September the 20th onwards because they are so based on artillery and only a depth of assault about a mile, a mile and a bit. That means that the amount that you're firing I mean, if we look to, you know, at least one of the Canadian assaults in late October, I think they were putting down over 1.2 tonnes of high explosive per second on a very, very small front. So you are no longer I mean, what's the word beyond annihilation. You have come beyond annihilation to a to to a slough of despond as it were that you creating in front of you, rain or no rain. It's interesting to note that the rail heads begin breaking down on the 19th of September. Well, we have good weather now. The problem is dust that this particular time. So Plumer's bite and hold, which is bite and hold with a vengeance begins to create havoc itself because the whole thing is based upon operational tempo. You have to move those guns forward as quickly as possible in order to keep the enemy off balance. But the only way you can move those guns forward is by road, or by light rail. You have no roads. You have no light rail because you've just annihilated everything in front of you. So unless you have that engineering capacity, your series of bite and hold operations are going to fail irrespective of the weather. And indeed, we see that failure occur on the 9th of October when the 66th Division for the division went into their assault and the whole thing just collapsed. You know, that was effectively, if you like, that was the rotten beam that finally broke, as it were. But it was easy to blame the 66th Division. It was essential for the assault of this. As an untried division, my grandfather was in the 66th division. However, on the 12th we see the same thing happening again with the experienced New Zealanders and Australians effectively we have simply run out of logistical road. We cannot supply anything further forward. Had we had a revolution in engineering support in 1915 and 1916, the equivalent of the artillery, all the machine guns or even the creation of the tank or that would have been a very good chance that we could have maintained this operation.
Tom Thorpe [00:29:43] So what does the BEF take from the failure or maybe non-success of Messines and Third Ypres? How do they reform and take forward these lessons, if any.
Rob Thompson [00:29:54] Interestingly enough they derive very few if any logistical or engineering lessons from Messines or Third Ypres. What they do, though, is they derive their logistical and engineering lessons from the German withdrawal to the Hindenburg line. The reason being is that they expect to move into mobile warfare in 1918. Initially it was going to be the BEF and the French would be pursuing this, but latterly it was the notion that we will sit tight while the Germans attack. But either way, they began to realise that mobile warfare was the future. Indeed. And it sounds quite bizarre when you look at Third Ypres and you look at the distances involved. Third Ypres represents open warfare and open warfare is not mobile warfare, but it's no longer trench warfare. It's interesting to note that the demand for machine guns and rifle grenades increased dramatically during Third Ypres. The demand for grenades and grenades went down with nothing to grenade, really. So you got the beginnings of open warfare, and that's a precursor to mobile war. Since the German withdrawal to the Hindenburg line in early spring of 1917 was the only experience the modern BEF had of mobile warfare. They took lessons from it and they began to do things like, for example, the notion of increasing the motorisation of the BEF began to be argued for. They realised that a light railway simply could not be laid quickly, despite the claims of everything to maintain in advance. They realised that they were going to be extended from their railhead. Therefore we are going to need motor transport and therefore road is much greater focus on stone, on roads and on flexibility of movement. So we have, if you like, by early 1918, they've created a standardised section of lorries providing a supply to keep going on about lorries, but they are vital to the system. This is 16 lorries, one of which is kept as a spare 15 which are used. And whether you're a supply column or a division of ammunition column, whether you were Corps working, you know, wherever, you just simply have a standard number of sections, all the same type of lorry, all with the same type of spare system. On top of that, you've got things like rapid bridging. It's interesting to note that when the Germans withdrew in 1917 to get the bridge across to XXX took them something like in the region of three weeks, to build bridges strong enough to be able to carry the heaviest crosses of traffic. In 1918, in August, they took them only about three days to build those self-same bridges because they'd reorganised bridging. They put a great deal of focus on standardisation of span, standardisation of types of bridges that will take up, and also devolvement of control, command and control as well downwards because they also realised that top heavy control during mobile warfare will not work. I mean, Gough to his credit, you know, he said during early 1917 as he was pursuing the Germans that it is clear that this system brought in by Geddes will not work during mobile warfare. So all of the key lessons are actually drawn from a completely forgotten part of the battle, which most scholars look at in terms of how it spoilt the assault for the development of. And do not look at the fact that actually this is a critical period. It's our only experience of mobile warfare in pursuit of a retiring enemy. So in a way, Third Ypres, the siege of Third Ypres was the last gasp of the traditional operation first that began to develop in 1916 And it was a dead end, as it were, and it was the introduction of movement which therefore allowed the BEF to really come into its own logistics. I mean, the, the proof of that can be seen towards November the 11th, over the first week and a half in November, where the British Army's rail head's usable, rail heads are 60 miles behind the front, which is a colossal amount given in before 1912, the odd horse struck a spot. The cropper is seven miles in front of your railhead, a 1914. It was meant to be 37 miles, i.e. 30 miles of road transport, seven miles of halt, 1980 were running at 60 miles. However, there are limits. We are really now pushed to its limits. Lorries are beginning to break down everywhere. There are shortages of everything. So interestingly enough, the Armistice itself came as an enormous relief to the British because it reached the point where we could not move any further forward. That period of early 1917 was critical, and in a sense, Messines and Third Ypres were just simply the last hurrah of the old way of doing things.
Tom Thorpe [00:34:44] And finally, where can people learn more about your research?
Rob Thompson [00:34:48] I've done a couple of checks and I don't put them out. They're just chapters and bits and bats. They're not ... particularly accessible (were quite so high end technical). But I've been doing a lot of work on the WFA and if people go into the WFA website, they can see not only this podcast ... beginning on this podcast, but they can see a recent one. I just did a BFA, which was "Lemons and Chewing Gum'. It's something the Army Service Corps did during the First World War to get folks on Third Ypres, because I find that quite fascinating, as it were. Also there's quite another thing that I mean I've forgotten I've actually done it but I strolled across on the WFA website putting in 'Rob Thompson' from something like that. I did a piece on the importance of the German withdrawal to the Hindenburg line and how it affected the battle in 1918.
I was meant to be writing the book. It is you know, I've got quite a number of chapters done, but unfortunately I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma about 18 months ago. And so that's kind of taken over my life and I really had to go to the back of the queue. I'm recovering now. It is terminal, it will get me in the end. What's the prognosis? Certainly for the next 5 to 10 years it will be very, very good. So I promise I will get that book because it is so complex. Everything interacts with each other. I read the actual study of operations is a doddle, compared with how they got from point A to point Z via B to Y.
Tom Thorpe [00:36:23] Rob, thank you very much for your time.
You have been listening to the Mentioned in Dispatches podcast from the Western Front Association with me, Tom Thorpe. Thank you to all my guests for appearing on this edition. The Theme Music for this podcasts with George Butterworth. The Banks of Green, we know it was performed by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conducted by Chris Rissman and produced by BIS Records. This recording is part of a collection of orchestral works by Butterworth, performed by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and supported by the Western Front Association. This is available from all global sources under the record code. BBC 2195. Until next time.