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First World War - The Battle of Aubers Ridge

9th May 1915

The French Commander in Chief Joseph Joffre decided to launch an offensive north of Arras where the German line formed a large salient. The aim was to disrupt German communications and supply lines making the salient harder to defend. The German High Command was redeploying men to fight on the Eastern Front against Russia and Joffre wanted to exploit this advantage. The attack on Aubers Ridge would be the first stage of British involvement in the Second Battle of Artois.

The French objectives were to capture Vimy Ridge and then advance eastwards on to the Douai Plain. Sir Douglas Haig’s First Army would support the French attack to the south by launching an assault on the Aubers Ridge. The Aubers Ridge was an objective that the British had tried to capture before during the Battle of Neuve Chapelle in March 1915.

Since then the German defences in this area had been substantially improved. The breastworks and parapets (walls) of the frontline trenches had been built up with sandbags and were now seven feet high and fifteen to twenty feet wide. The communication trenches had been strengthened and it was now easier for the defenders to block and repel a break-in by enemy troops. The dug outs had been reinforced and were better able to withstand artillery bombardments. There were more machine gun posts. In front of the trenches there were now pits filled with coils of barbed wire as well as extensive barriers of barbed wire above ground.

British Bombardment

The British army was running short of artillery shells and with the Second Battle of Ypres taking place further to the north, Sir Douglas Haig was also limited in the number of heavy guns at his disposal.  Some of the guns were obsolete models which dated to the Boer War and to the Battle of Ombdurman in the Sudan. In light of these constraints, Haig’s plan was for a short artillery bombardment which would be concentrated on two sections of the German line to the north and south of Neuve Chapelle. The infantry would then advance through these two gaps and come together behind the German lines in a pincer movement and capture Aubers Ridge. They were to then push on as far to the east as possible.

At 5am on the 9 May the British bombardment began. The heavy artillery pounded identified strong points along the German line. Shrapnel shells were fired by the field guns to cut the coils of barbed wire and create a gap for the infantry. At 5.30am the bombardment intensified. The same tactic had been used by the British with some success at the Battle of Neuve Chapelle. To the north, a few of the field guns had been moved up to the frontline to fire at almost point blank range on the German breastworks.

Due to faulty ammunition and wear on the gun barrels some of the artillery shells fell short of their targets, including landing on the British lines.

The first infantry units made their way over the top into No Man’s Land. They took up their positions, ready for when the bombardment lifted from the German front lines at 5.40am. The distance between the two lines of trenches was only a few hundred yards, but the terrain was flat with few places to take cover from enemy fire.

Northern Attack

To the north of Neuve Chapelle units of the 8th Division were to attack south-eastwards toward Rouges Bancs and Fromelles.

The German machine guns had opened fire before the bombardment had finished, hitting the men of the East Lancashire Regiment as they left their trenches to take up positions for the attack.

At 5.40am two mines that had been placed in tunnels under the German front line were detonated. As the barrage lifted, the men of the lead units attempted to take the first line of German trenches and occupy the craters left by the mine explosions.

Many were cut down by rifle and machine gun fire, though some did manage to make it through. The artillery bombardment had blown several gaps in the German defences, allowing the infantry to capture part of the first line trench. Acting Corporal Charles Sharpe of the 2nd Lincolnshire Regiment was awarded the Victoria Cross for capturing a section of German trench. However the intense fire across No Man’s Land left the men cut off and without reinforcements.

There were so many casualties that the forward and communication trenches were full of the dead and wounded. They were also under heavy fire from German artillery which added to the chaos. Corporal James Upton of the 1st Battalion The Sherwood Foresters was awarded the Victoria Cross for repeatedly going to the rescue of wounded men in No Man’s Land and “…when Corporal Upton was not actually carrying in the wounded he was engaged in bandaging and dressing the serious cases in front of our parapet, exposed to the enemy’s fire”.

Sir Douglas Haig ordered a renewed attack for the afternoon but it had to be cancelled. The men waiting in the assembly areas were hit by artillery fire resulting in many casualties.

With reinforcements unable to reach them, the men who were occupying the German trenches were forced to fall back. By 3am all captured positions had been lost.

Southern Attack

South of Neuve Chapelle, units of the 1st Division and Meerut Division were attacking eastwards towards the Bois de Biez.

The lead battalions were hit by machine gun fire as they got into their assault positions and many did not make it beyond their own parapet. Despite this the attack continued. The bombardment lifted off the German front lines at 5.40am and the men advanced as planned.

The bombardment to the south of Neuve Chapelle had been less successful and very few holes had been cut in the wire. Advancing was virtually impossible under the intense machine gun and rifle fire. Hundreds of men were left pinned down by enemy fire in No Man’s Land. Another bombardment was ordered to try and relieve the situation. The Germans opened up with their own artillery and began shelling the battlefield and the British lines.

Sir Douglas Haig ordered a renewal of the assault in the afternoon. There were hundreds of casualties most within a short distance of the British front line.

Lance Corporal David Finlay of the 2nd Battalion The Black Watch (Royal Highlanders) was awarded a Victoria Cross for leading a bombing party towards the German trenches. After losing ten of his men Lance Corporal Finlay ordered the remaining two men to “crawl back” to the British lines. Finlay himself made it to safety with a wounded man who he carried “…over a distance of 100 yards of fire-swept ground…quite regardless of his own personal safety”.

Some men of the Black Watch did manage to make it through the coils of German wire entanglements and into the trenches.

Corporal John Ripley of the 1st Battalion The Black Watch (Royal Highlanders) was awarded the Victoria Cross for leading his men to a second line trench and continuing to defend it  “…until all his men had fallen, and he himself had been badly wounded in the head.” Corporal Ripley managed to make it back to the British line and survived the war.

Sir Douglas Haig had intended to renew the attack later that evening but was forced to cancel his plans due to the disarray in the British lines and high number of casualties. An order to renew the attack the next day was also cancelled after Haig learned that there were not enough reserves of artillery shells to continue with both attacks.

Aftermath

One days fighting had resulted in over 11,000 British casualties, 458 of which were officers. The wounded were still being brought in to the dressing stations over three days later. 

The French attack had been more successful and was still ongoing. The British would continue to support the French Tenth Army in their bid to capture Vimy Ridge by launching an attack to the south of Neuve Chapelle at Festubert on the 15 May. Although some gains were made, this came to an end on the 25 May in the face of strong German opposition and a lack of high explosive artillery shells.

The British Commander in Chief Sir John French had complained about the shortage of artillery shells to Colonel Tim Repington, the military correspondent for the Times newspaper.  An article published on the 14 May in the Times placed the failure of the attack on the government. “British soldiers died in vain on the Aubers Ridge…because more shells were needed.” The story resulted in a political crisis, the Shell Scandal, which contributed to the Liberals being forced to accept a coalition government on the 25 May 1915. The Shell Scandal also brought about the creation of the Ministry of Munitions headed by David Lloyd George.