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The First World War – The Battle of Neuve Chapelle

10th – 13th March 1915

2015 marks 100 years since the Battle of Neuve Chapelle in the Artois region of France.

This was the first large scale British planned offensive of World War One.

Background and Objective

At the beginning of 1915 the British and French Commander-in-Chiefs Sir John French and General Joseph Joffre discussed conducting a joint offensive on the Western Front.

General Joffre would only commit to the offensive if the British took over part of the French line near Ypres as he could not launch an attack without these French troops being made available. Sir John French was unable to do this as some of the reinforcements he had been expecting from England, the 29th Division, were now being sent to the Dardanelles. Sir John French decided that Britain would launch an offensive on its own.

Intelligence reports suggested that the German Sixth Army, commanded by Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria, was understrength in the British sector. Several German infantry divisions and cavalry units had been redeployed to the Eastern Front to fight the Russian army. Morale in the British lines was low after a cold, wet winter in the trenches and Sir John French felt they needed to regain their “offensive spirit”. By March the weather had improved and the muddy ground was beginning to dry out.

General Douglas Haig in command of the British First Army drew up detailed plans for the offensive. The main objective was to capture the village of Neuve Chapelle and push the British line as far to the east of this as possible. To the east was the Aubers Ridge which was a strategically important area of high ground.

New tactics

One of the features of static trench warfare was the construction of strong defensive positions. New ideas and tactics were used at Neuve Chapelle to try and break through the German lines.

Aerial photographs taken by the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) showed the location and extent of the German defences. These photographs enabled more accurate maps of the German positions to be drawn up. Officers were issued with trench maps with their objectives clearly marked.

For the first time the artillery bombardment would fall on pre-arranged targets following a set timetable. The idea was that the barrage would lift and move on to its next target at a specific time while the infantry moved up behind and captured the recently bombarded enemy position.

In the nights leading up to the offensive miles of telephone wires were laid. Roads and track-ways were improved and bridges built across ditches, to allow large numbers of men and supplies to move up to the forward trenches.

The field guns were brought up and moved into position. These would bombard the German defences and use shrapnel shells to destroy the barbed wire obstacles. Due to a shortage of ammunition Sir John French was forced to ration the use of the shells he already had and stockpile them for the offensive. There had also been a delay in the arrival from England of two batteries of heavy guns. These eight 6-inch Howitzers would only take up their firing positions less than a day before the offensive was due to start, which did not give them sufficient time to properly gauge their targets.

The initial attack on the German trenches in front of the north-west section of the village would be by the 23rd and 25th Brigades of General Henry Rawlinson’s IV Corps. The Garhwal Brigade of General James Willcocks’ Indian Corps would attack the trenches to the south. Further Brigades, from the 7th and 8th Divisions of IV Corps and from the Meerut and Lahore Divisions of the Indian Corps, would then move up and continue the advance as the objectives were captured. A cavalry brigade was also held in reserve ready to exploit any gap in the German lines. The RFC were given targets to bomb behind the German lines to disrupt communications and slow their reinforcements.

The German line facing the British was understrength but the Germans had reserves stationed only a few miles away. Douglas Haig emphasised that the attack hinged on surprise and speed. The objectives needed to be taken before the Germans could bring up their reinforcements.

The Battle
10 March 2015

At 7.30am on the 10 March the artillery bombardment began. The guns shelled the German forward trenches for 35 minutes before moving on to bombard their next pre-arranged targets further to the east. At 8.05 am the first infantry battalions left the trenches and launched their assault.

To the north of the village the artillery bombardment had not cut the barbed wire in front of the 23rd Brigade or done much damage to the German forward trenches. The 2nd Middlesex Regiment were mown down by machine gun fire incurring heavy losses. To their right the 2nd Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) were caught up in this same machine gun fire as they tried to cut the wire entanglements. Major George Carter-Campbell of the Scottish Rifles was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for taking over the command of the battalion and holding “…with great determination the positions which had been gained. He had only one surviving officer to assist him.”

To the south the 1/39th Garhwal Rifles of the Indian Corps attacked the wrong objective. Heavy casualties were incurred capturing the German trenches as they had not been shelled during the bombardment so their defences were still intact. The rest of the Garhwal Brigade and the 25th Brigade advanced successfully.

The initial assault was a success. The Germans had been taken by surprise and by mid-morning Neuve Chapelle had been captured. However, the momentum of the attack was then lost as communications broke down.

The British positions were under heavy German artillery bombardment which cut the telephone wires. This hampered communications between the guns, the infantry and each of the Brigade, Division and Corps Headquarters situated behind the lines. Despite many valiant efforts to repair the telephone wires and get messages through with runners, orders were delayed or based on wrong or incomplete information. The advance slowed and the reserves were not brought up quickly enough to exploit any gains. General Rawlinson held up the advance as he believed, erroneously, that a small orchard was heavily defended by the Germans.

The order to continue the advance was not given until mid-afternoon by which time daylight was running out. The long delay had also given time for the Germans to bring up reinforcements and establish a new defensive line. Machine gun fire in the area of Moulin du Pietre and from the now heavily defended Layes Bridge held up the advance of the 7th and 8th Divisions. Units of the Indian Corps, who were advancing on Bois du Biez to the south, were ordered to fall back and dig in for the night.

11 March 2015

March 11 was misty which made things difficult for the artillery observation officers and the RFC. With unreliable communications and poor visibility the artillery fire could not easily be directed on the right targets or stopped when infantry gains were made. The fortifications at the Layes Bridge and near Moulin du Pietre prevented any substantial advances by the infantry. By nightfall the British line had barely moved. The Germans moved up more reserves during the night.

12 & 13 March 2015

Just before sunrise on the 12 March the Germans launched a counter attack with a large mass of infantry supported by artillery fire. They suffered heavy casualties and many Germans were taken prisoner. Over 1600 Germans would be captured by the end of the battle.

The artillery and RFC were hampered again by another day of misty weather. Units of IV Corps and Indian Corps made further attempts to capture the strongly defended German positions in their front.

At Layes Bridge the Royal Irish Rifles and 2nd Battalion Rifle Brigade incurred severe casualties from machine gun and artillery fire.  Sergeant-Major Harry Daniels and Corporal Cecil Noble of the 2nd Rifle Brigade each won the Victoria Cross for volunteering to cut the barbed wire entanglements under “very severe machine gun fire”. They succeeded although both men were wounded in the attempt with Corporal Noble later dying of his injuries.

By nightfall all further attacks were postponed and then the offensive was finally cancelled. On the 13 March the Germans kept up a sustained heavy bombardment, unaware that the attack had ended.

Neuve Chapelle had been captured and the British line pushed further to the east, but the Aubers Ridge still remained in German hands. There were over 11,000 British and Indian casualties.

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