Vice Admiral William S. Sims, Commander, United States Naval Forces Operating in European Waters, to Admiral Sir Lewis Bayly, Commander, Southern Ireland
May 5th, 1918.
My dear Admiral,
Your letter of the 2nd. has just arrived in which you ask me what has happened to me. The only thing that has happened to me is that I am very unusually busy with a number of matters that are being pushed from the United States. In addition to this there is a good deal going as a reflection of the crisis on the Western Front.
As long as the splendid British Tommies and the French poilus can hold the Huns in check our program is comparatively simple, but when you come to consider what new dispositions must be made if nothing worse happens than the abandonment of Calais and Boulogne,1 it is quite remarkable the number of complications we find, not only in respect to the great increase of tonnage that would bre required, a and the escorting vessels to take what care of them, but in the actual diminution of the supplies it would be possible to transport to the soldiers on the firing line – this due to the inadequacy of the railroads of western France which are now rather heavily burdened.
During my visit of two-and-a-half days to Paris about the 26th, I saw a good many of the principals of the French, British and American armies, also: some of the principal naval officers, and some of the Government officials,; and in no case did I find any feeling of pessimism as to the ultimate result on the Western Front. I had a talk with one of our most capable journalists who had just returned from a visit to the French Front.2 He reported that the condition of the French army was extremely satisfactory, particularly in comparison to what it was in April 1917, just after the failure of General Neville’s drive.3 It was explained to me that the taking of Mount Kemmel was of no particular advantage to the enemy because this elevation is flanked on three sides by elevations held by the Allies. Its only tactical advantage to the enemy was said to be that they could not advance beyond it without taking it – but the taking of it did not at all imply that they could advance beyond it.4
Those army officials who claim to know something of the general plans explained, that the object of the Chief Command now is not particularly to prevent falling back here and there (provided no really strategic position is lost) but to make the advances of the German armies as costly as possible to them and to do this by the employment of the minimum possible number of troops. In other words, the game seems to be to keep from giving up any strategical position before the enemy’s troops have all been engaged and partially exhausted and while there yet remains to us a body of fresh troops sufficient, to make an effective counter stroke.
The soldiers explained that it is not necessary in this battle to defeat the Germans. That their actual defeat could be accomplished only by a very considerable preponderance of men on our side, but that if they are definitely arrested it will amount to a defeat for them, at least in the eyes of their own people, who are said to have consented to this offensive upon the assurance of the military men that it was certain to end the war in their favor.
I am of course in deep waters when I begin to talk about army affairs, so I am only telling you what some of the “principal dignitaries” of the armies told me in Paris.
I must say, however, that the situation seems to me to be dangerously critical.
As to our own side of the affair, I think that will be successfully handled if the enemy can be held on the Western Front. I saw while in Paris the figures compiled by the International Maritime Transport Council. These show that the curves of destruction and the curve of construction will cross each other before the middle of summer; that construction will thereafter remain ahead of destruction but not very much ahead until the month of December, when it will be 100, 000 tons ahead, but that after that the excess will increase with great rapidity.
Extraordinary dispositions have been made to get over the maximum number of troops. They expect to get over about 500,000 in the next three months, and I believe that they can do it.
I want very much to find the time to run up to Queenstown, and I shall certainly do so as; soon as I feel justified in leaving London.
In the meantime, however, I am in perfectly good health, Please give my best love to the ONLY NIECE,5 and believe me,
Always very sincerely yrs.
Source Note: TL, DLC-MSS, William Sims Papers, Box 23. Addressed below close: “Admiral Sir Lewis Bayly, R.N.,/ Admiralty House, Queenstown,/ Irleand.” The document is from “Admiral Sims/Personal File.” Document reference: “1/3/J.”
Footnote 1: Despite the strong offensive push by the Germans, the Allies were able to hold both these locations.
Footnote 2: Peter Clarke MacFarlane, Saturday Evening Post.
Footnote 3: Gen. Robert Nivelle. As a result his success leading the French Second Army at the Battle of Verdun in May 1916, Nivelle had been appointed Commander-in-Chief of the French Armies on the Western Front in December 1916, a position he held until the following May. In April 1917, Nivelle launched an offensive campaign, known as the Nivelle Offensive. Nivelle’s plan was for the British forces to take over an extra 20 miles of the French front to free up French troops, who would then be able to launch a series of joint Anglo-French attacks between Arras and the Oise to keep German reserve troops occupied. Meanwhile, additional French forces would initiate a surprise attack by on the Aisne. These joint attacks would allow the "GAR" (Army Group Reserve or Rupture), two armies in the line and another two in reserve (27 divisions containing 1.2 million men in total), to exploit a rupture of the German defenses and, hopefully, begin to drive the German Army back to the German frontier. The Franco-British attacks were tactically successful; the French Third Army of theGroupe d'armées du Nord (GAN) captured the German defenses west of the Hindenburg Line (Siegfriedstellung) near St. Quentin from 1 to 4 April, before further attacks were repulsed. In the Battle of Arras, the British Third and First armies achieved the deepest advance since trench warfare began, inflicting many losses on the Germans, and resulting in the capture of Vimy Ridge to the north. The main French offensive on the Aisne began on 16 April and also achieved considerable tactical success but the attempt to force a strategically decisive battle on the Germans failed and by 25 April the main offensive had been suspended. As a result of his failure to deliver the resounding success that he had promised, Nivelle was replaced by Philippe Pétain as Commande-in-Chief of the French Army on the Western Front on 15 May and was reassigned to command the French Army in North Africa in December. R. A. Doughty, Pyrrhic victory: French Strategy and Operations in the Great War (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2005).
Footnote 4: Due to its strategic location, Mount Kemmel, or Kemmelberg, was fiercely fought over in the Fourth Battle of Ypres (7-29 April 1918). On 25 April 1918, German imperial forces, hoping to force a breakthrough to the North Sea, started attacking the French troops on Kemmelberg with gas grenades. At 6 a.m. the German Alpenkorps seized and captured Kemmelberg, causing allied troops to withdraw from all the hills in the region. Thousands of French soldiers were slaughtered in the offensive. J. E. Edmonds, H.R. Davies, and R. G. B. Maxwell-Hyslop,eds. Military Operations France and Belgium: 1918 March–April: Continuation of the German Offensives. Vol II, (London: Macmillan, 1995).
Footnote 5: Bayly’s niece, Miss Violet Voysey.