The Battle of Neuve Chapelle
The Battle of Neuve Chapelle was the first offensive campaign fought by the British Expeditionary Force during the First World War. Prior to this date, engagements had been defensive in nature, or engagements such as those undertaken in ‘the race for the sea’. It, therefore, provides the earliest example of British military tactics for an offensive campaign.
The objectives were to capture the village of Neuve Chapelle and Aubers Ridge. The village was of importance as the German Army was using it as a supply hub, through which many men and munitions were passing to the front lines. Aubers Ridge was significant as it dominated the area, providing a strong position from which artillery could be deployed onto the trenches of either side.
Planning this offensive was difficult. No man’s land was a relatively new concept in warfare. Trenches had been seen in previous wars, but movement in and around a battlefield had still been possible. Now, any daylight movement above the parapet was deadly as the defensive might of a machine gun and close range that snipers were operating at made attacking troops sitting ducks.
Generals also faced the problems of deep mud, waterlogged supply lines, barbed wire, minefields, strongly defended dug out and enemy artillery. A combination that was new to tacticians of the day.
‘Those responsible for planning the preliminaries for a battle which was the first trench offensive were faced by problems for which neither their training nor experience had actually prepared them: and consequently, much of their work at this period was experimental.’
(The Official History of the War Military Operations: France & Belgium 1915 Volume 1 by Sir James Edmonds, published Macmillan & Co, 1927).
Though the commanders of the BEF are often derided for their judgement when planning offensive campaigns in the war, an appraisal of what they put together for the assault on Neuve Chapelle suggests that they were quite innovative.
- It was the first time that the British Army combined offensive operations of infantry and the Royal Flying Corps.
- It was the first time that artillery was deployed for the purpose of destroying barbed wire.
- The assault was to be twofold, with the British IV Division and Indian Corps advancing from different sectors with a rendezvous point set for the village itself.
- Aerial reconnaissance was employed to gain up to date intelligence.
- During the campaign, the Royal Flying Corps was used for strategic bombing missions.
- Diversionary tactics were developed and utilised, by Canadian forces.
Canadian officers, later renowned for revolutionary tactics, realised that a radical approach was needed to Trench Warfare in the planning stage:
“The assault must be launched in one rush, this is essential if it is to succeed. The energy and courage of the troops will do the rest.”
– RG 9, series III-D-3, vol. 4033, folder 3, file 1.
This was all to be planned in secrecy. Even the barrage on the German lines was designed to be a surprise: and it was, it was the first time that this approach had been unleashed on the German lines.
A written note from General Rawlinson, Commanding IV Corps, given to every soldier before Neuve Chapelle.
‘The G.O.C. the Division desires me to convey to you and all ranks under your command his deep appreciation of the splendid work performed by your battalion during the last few days’ hard fighting. For my own part I find it difficult to express adequately my admiration for the way in which you have fought. I mourn with you for our gallant comrades who have fallen, but the splendid cause for which they have fought, and the brave way in which they have died, must always be the greatest comfort to those whom they have left behind, and stimulate them to fresh efforts’.
Message passed after Neuve Chapelle to the 13th Bn London Regiment (‘The Kensingtons’) by Brigadier Lowry-Cole commanding 25th Brigade.
At 7.30 am the artillery opened up. German lines along the front were subjected to 35 minutes of bombardment. At 8.05 am, the later infamous whistles were blown, and men went over the top.
Though the preliminary bombardment had taken the Germans by surprise, it was not a total success. In some areas, the barbed wire was not cut. This was partly due to the poor weather conditions hampering the ability to fire all of the howitzers that had been designated the task, partly because of the range of some artillery and partly because of the way that the wires reacted to the bombardment.
The advance was supported by the diversionary methods that the First Canadian Division were assigned. Operating on the left flank of the IV Division, they participated in the bombardment. As British troops advanced through No Mans Land they maintained an element of Bombardment, to distract and laid down suppressing fire. Should the British make substantial gains, this Canadian Division would then be called upon to take up the assault.
Nonetheless, it was sufficient to have created a scenario in which the IV Division and Indian Corps could make their assaults. Those assaults were successful, within 2 hours the rendezvous had been made in the centre of Neuve Chapelle.
The victory, however, was not one that was short-lived. In scenes that were to be repeated many times over the course of the war, the attack then faltered, was subjected to counterattack, and failed to make gains that were decisive.
Why? In the case of Neuve Chapelle this was due to several things:
- Follow up artillery bombardments were limited in success as resupply of munitions was not adequate. This was made worse by poor visibility which hindered the ability to range effectively.
- Aubers Ridge had not been taken. And it was probable that attempting to do so would have failed as the Germans held positions between Neuve Chapelle and the Ridge which, without adequate artillery support, would prove difficult to overcome.
- Lack of manpower. The IV Division had needed to draw upon men from other units and recent recruits from ‘Kitchener’s Army’ to be at full Divisional Strength. The Indian Corps had been urgently moved to the Western Front because of a lack of trained and battle-ready British soldiers.
- The Germans reacted quickly. The attack was utilising new techniques, but the defender’s response was both fast and effective.
Returning to the issue of leadership it is again clear that officers did not simply carry on regardless. The strengths and weaknesses of the barrage were noted, for example:
‘To ensure this being a success I consider the guns should be within 1,700 x of their objective. It may be possible to successfully cut the wire at ranges considerably beyond that stated above, but I think a large element of luck enters into the question if guns are kept back at long range.
If an attack is launched and is unsuccessful very heavy losses will have to be endured, and I am of opinion that no chances should be taken and that an Artillery Commander should be able to confidently assure his General that the wire will be cut within 15 minutes of fire being opened.’
(National Archives: WO 95/1683: 8th Division: Royal Horse Artillery & Royal Field Artillery Commander Royal Artillery)
Equally, the advantages of the methods were noted and made clear:
Of course we lost a great many men, but the slaughter amongst the Germans was awful. The enemy’s trenches presented a horrible spectacle, and dead and dying men lay all around us. The 2nd Middlesex suffered severely, but I would really not put a figure on the losses sustained by the Germans. If they were as heavy all along the front as they were where my regiment was attacking, then their casualties must have reached an appalling total.’
(The Sunday Post, 21 March 1915).
The initial phase of the Battle of Neuve Chapelle lasted 2 more days. It saw German counter-attacks which held back the British and Indian troops but was too unsuccessful in advancing any meaningful distance.
In these early exchanges, the casualty figures were high. They also showed that this was to be a war that, despite new offensive tactics, would be dominated by the superiority of defensive weaponry and the strength of a trench system. The German casualties are estimated at 108 officers and 8000 men: of which 70 officers and 6000 men became casualties when counter-attacking. Records for the Haig’s First Army show the loss of 544 officers and 11,108 men casualties totalling 11,652.
The consequences of the Battle of Neuve Chapelle were great. Sir John French blamed the failure of the assault on the lack of munitions. This led to political problems and the fall of the Liberal Government. The resulting coalition created the position of Minister of Munitions, held by David Lloyd George, a drive to get women into the factories and an additional drive to recruit men, as it had become clear that this was to be a war in which losses would be high.
The Victoria Cross was awarded to ten men as a result of the Battle of Neuve Chapelle. Including Gabar Singh Negi of the 2nd/39th Gharwal Rifles.
London Gazette entry reads:
“For most conspicuous bravery on 10 March, 1915, at Neuve Chapelle. During our attack on the German position he was one of a bayonet party with bombs who entered their [the German] main trench, and was the first man to go round each traverse, driving back the enemy until they were eventually forced to surrender. He was killed during this engagement.”
Canadian Sector at Neuve Chapelle
British and Indian wounded at Neuve Chapelle, on the way to the hospital base, 1915. One of the British is wearing a German helmet. Shows a group of wounded Germans, British and Indians next to a hospital train. (National Army Museum)
A Crucifix at Neuve Chapelle still standing amidst the ruins
The “Christ of the trenches”.
Ghurkas near Neuve Chapell
Sources of Information and Further Reading