The Year 1915 Illustrated/Battle of Neuve Chappelle

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THE Battle of Neuve Chapelle was fought on the 10th, 11th and 12th of March, and a description of the operations was published in a dispatch from Sir John French to the Secretary of State for War, dated 5th April, 1915. The main attack was delivered by troops of the First Army, under the command of General Sir Douglas Haig, supported by a large force of heavy artillery, a division of Cavalry and some Infantry of the general reserve. Secondary and holding attacks and demonstrations were made along the front of the Second Army under the direction of its Commander, General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien.

First Occupation of Neuve Chappelle[edit]

L/Cpl. Michael O'Leary, 1st Btn. Irish Guards, was awarded the Victoria Cross for conspicuous bravery at Cuinchy on February 1st, 1915. When forming one of the storming party which advanced against the enemy's barricades he rushed to the front and himself killed five Germans who were holding the first barricade, after which he attacked a second barricade, about sixty yards further on, which he captured, after killing three of the enemy and making prisoners of two more. O'Leary thus practically captured the enemy's position by himself and prevented the rest of the attacking party from being fired upon. Sketch by R. Caton Woodville.

Neuve Chapelle first came into prominence during our eastward advance to the north of La Bassée in October, 1914, when the Germans held it as one point in the series of rearguard positions they were taking up to delay our progress until their reinforcements should come up. On the 16th of that month the British first entered the village. Next day they drove the Germans still further back, and pressed on to Herlies. The neighbourhood of La Pilly, some three-and-a-half miles to the east of Neuve Chapelle, reached on October 19th, however, represents the high-water mark of our advance in this quarter, for by the 18th some of the enemy's reinforcements had come up, and their resistance had developed into offence. Such was the weight which they applied that by the 22nd our troops were withdrawn to a line passing east of Neuve Chapelle, which was still in our possession.

There was continuous and fierce fighting in this quarter during the next few days, for the Germans were beginning that pressure along our front which preluded their great effort to break through to the sea on our left. On October 26th they drove back our troops on the east of the village, and gained a portion of it, which they managed to retain in spite of our strenuous efforts to force them back. Being still more heavily reinforced, especially in artillery, they continued to push on, and by the morning of the 27th were masters of the whole of the village, our line being then to the west of it.

As was reported at the time, the fighting here was of the most murderous nature, and the Germans were made to pay dearly for every step they gained. On October 28th we made a last attempt to win back this point, and by a desperate counter-attack some of our Indian troops carried the greater part of the village, only to be driven out by flanking fire down the streets. They could not maintain themselves; and on November 2nd the Germans attacked our line to the west from Neuve Chapelle, which then was entirely in their hands, and drove us back a short distance, to the position in which we remained until March 10th.

The following is Sir John French's account of the new battle:

Considerations that led to the attack[edit]

About the end of February many vital considerations induced me to believe that a vigorous offensive movement by the forces under my command should be planned and carried out at the earliest possible moment. Amongst the more important reasons which convinced me of this necessity were:— The general aspect of the Allied situation throughout Europe, and particularly the marked success of the Russian army in repelling the violent onslaughts of Marshal von Hindenburg; the apparent weakening of the enemy in my front, and the necessity of assisting our Russian allies to the utmost by holding as many hostile troops as possible in the Western theatre; the efforts to this end which were being made by the French forces at Arras and Champagne; and, perhaps the most weighty consideration of all, the need of fostering the offensive spirit in the troops under my command after the trying and possibly enervating experiences which they had gone through of a severe winter in the trenches.

In a former dispatch I commented upon the difficulties and draw-backs which the winter weather in this climate imposes upon a vigorous offensive. Early in March these difficulties became greatly lessened by the drying up of the country and by spells of brighter weather. I do not propose in this dispatch to enter at length into the considerations which actuated me in deciding upon the plan, time and place of my attack, but your lordship is fully aware of these. As mentioned above, the main attack was carried out by units of the First Army, supported by troops of the Second Army and the general reserve.

Object of main attack[edit]

The object of the main attack was to be the capture of the village of Neuve Chapelle and the enemy's position at that point, and the establishment of our line as far forward as possible to the east of that place. The object, nature and scope of the attack, and instructions for the conduct of the operation were communicated by me to Sir Douglas Haig in a secret memorandum dated February 19th. The main topographical feature of this part of the theatre is a marked ridge which runs south-west from a point two miles south-west of Lille to the village of Fournes, whence two spurs run out, one due west to a height known as Haut Pommereau, the other following the line of the main road to Illies.

The buildings of the village of Neuve Chapelle run along the Rue du Bois-Fauquissart Road. There is a triangle of roads just north of the village. This area consists of a few big houses, with walls, gardens, orchards, etc., and here, with the aid of numerous machine guns, the enemy had established a strong post which flanked the approaches to the village. The Bois du Biez, which lies roughly south-east of the village of Neuve Chapelle, influenced the course of this operation. Full instructions as to assisting and supporting the attack were issued to the Second Army.

Beginning of the battle[edit]

Bringing up Ammunition under Shell Fire.
Original source:Newspaper Illustrations.

The battle opened at 7.30 a.m. on March 10th by a powerful artillery bombardment of the enemy's position at Neuve Chapelle. The artillery bombardment had been well prepared and was most effective, except on the extreme northern portion of the front of attack. At 8.5 a.m. the 23rd (left) and 25th (right) Brigades of the 8th Division assaulted the German trenches on the north-west of the village. At the same hour the Garhwal Brigade of the Meerut Division, which occupied the position to the south of Neuve Chapelle, assaulted the German trenches in its front. The Garhwal Brigade and the 25th Brigade carried the enemy's lines of entrenchments where the wire entanglements had been almost entirely swept away by our shrapnel fire. The 23rd Brigade, however, on the north-east, was held up by the wire entanglements, which were not sufficiently cut. At 8.5 a.m. the artillery turned on to Neuve Chapelle, and at 8.35 a.m. the advance of the infantry was continued.

The 25th and Garhwal Brigades pushed on eastward and north-eastward respectively, and succeeded in getting a footing in the village. The 23rd Brigade was still held up in front of the enemy's wire entanglements, and could not progress. Heavy losses were suffered, especially in the Middlesex Regiment and the Scottish Rifles. The progress, however, of the 25th Brigade into Neuve Chapelle immediately to the south of the 23rd Brigade had the effect of turning the southern flank of the enemy's defences in front of the 23rd Brigade. This fact, combined with powerful artillery support, enabled the 23rd Brigade to get forward between 10 and 11 a.m., and by it a.m. the whole of the village of Neuve Chapelle and the roads leading northward and south-westward from the eastern end of that village were in our hands. Dring this time our artillery completely cut off the village and the surrounding country from any German reinforcements which could be thrown into the fight to restore the situation by means of a curtain of shrapnel fire. Prisoners subsequently reported that all attempts at reinforcing the front line were checked.

Steps were at once taken to consolidate the position won. Considerable delay occurred after the capture of the Neuve Chapelle position. The infantry was greatly disorganised by the violent nature of the attack and by its passage through the enemy's trenches and the buildings of the village. It was necessary to get units to some extent together before pushing on. The telephonic communication being cut by the enemy's fire rendered communication between front and rear most difficult. The fact of the left of the 23rd Brigade having been held up had kept back the 8th Division, and had involved a portion of the 25th Brigade in fighting to the north out of its proper direction of advance. All this required adjustment. An orchard held by the enemy north of Neuve Chapelle also threatened the flank of an advance toward the Aubers Ridge. I am of opinion that this delay would not have occurred had the clearly expressed order of the General Officer Commanding First Army been more carefully observed. The difficulties above enumerated might have been overcome at an earlier period of the day if the General Officer Commanding 4th Corps had been able to bring his reserve brigades more speedily into action. As it was, the further advance did not commence before 3.30 p.m.

German machine guns[edit]

The 21st Brigade was able to form up in the open on the left without a shot being fired at it, thus showing that at the time the enemy's resistance had been paralysed. The brigade pushed forward in the direction of Moulin Du Pietre. At first it made good progress, but was subsequently held up by the machine gun fire from the houses and from a defended work in the line of the German entrenchments opposite the right of the 22nd Brigade. Further to the south the 24th Brigade, which had been directed on Pietre, was similarly held up by machine guns in the houses and trenches at the road junction 600 yards north-west of Pietre. The 25th Brigade, on the right of the 24th, was also held up by machine-guns from a bridge held by the Germans, over the River Des Layes, which is situated to the north-west of the Bois du Biez. Whilst two brigades of the Meerut Division were establishing themselves on the new line, the Dehra Dun Brigade, supported by the Jullundur Brigade of the Lahore Division, moved to the attack of the Bois du Biez, but were held up on the line of the River des Layes by the German post at the bridge which enfiladed them and brought them to a standstill.

The defended bridge over the River des Layes and its neighbourhood immediately assumed considerable importance. Whilst artillery fire was brought to bear, as far as circumstances would permit, on this point, Sir Douglas Haig directed the 1st Corps to dispatch one or more battalions of the 1st Brigade in support of the troops attacking the bridge. Three battalions were thus sent to Richebourg St. Vaast. Darkness coming on, and the enemy having brought up reinforcements, no further progress could be made, and the Indian Corps and 4th Corps proceeded to consolidate the position they had gained. Whilst the operations which I have thus briefly recorded were going on, the 1st Corps, in accordance with orders, delivered an attack, in the morning from Givenchy, simultaneously with that against Neuve Chapelle; but, as the enemy's wire was insufficiently cut, very little progress could be made, and the troops at this point did little more than hold fast the Germans in front of them.

Unfavourable weather[edit]

The King's Liverpools, a regiment that has won innumerable honours in the war, are waiting with the bayonet for the Germans, who are seen (in the left hand corner) advancing in mass. Behind the British line the officer is ready to leap forward to lead his men with the most stirring word of command – "Charge!"
Original source: Direct Press.

On the following day, March 11th, the attack was renewed by the 4th and Indian Corps, but it was soon seen that a further advance would be impossible until the artillery had dealt effectively with the various houses and defended localities whch held up the troops along the entire front. Efforts were made to direct the artillery fire accordingly; but owing to the weather conditions, which did not permit of aerial observation, and the fact that nearly all the telephonic communications between the artillery observers and their batteries had been cut, it was impossible to do so with sufficient accuracy. Even when our troops which were pressing forward occupied a house here and there, it was not possible to stop our artillery fire, and the infantry had to be withdrawn.

The two principal points which barred the advance were the same as on the preceding day — namely, the enemy's position about Moulin de Petrie and at the bridge over the River des Layes. On March 12th the same unfavourable conditions as regards weather prevailed, and hampered artillery action. Although the 4th and Indian Corps most gallantly attempted to capture the strongly fortified positions in their front, they were unable to maintain themselves, although they succeeded in holding them for some hours. Operations on this day were chiefly remarkable for the violent counter-attacks, supported by artillery, which were delivered by the Germans, and the ease with which they were repulsed. As most of the objects for which the operations had been undertaken had been attained, and as there were reasons why I considered it inadvisable to continue the attack at that time, I directed Sir Douglas Haig on the night of the 12th to hold and consolidate the ground which had been gained by the 4th and Indian Corps, and to suspend further offensive operations for the present.

On the morning of the 12th I informed the general officer commanding First Army that he could call on the 2nd Cavalry Division, under General Gough, for immediate support in the event of the successes of the First Army opening up opportunities for its favourable employment. This division and a brigade of the North Midland Division, which was temporarily attached to it, was moved forward for this purpose. The 5th Cavalry Brigade, under Sir Philip Chetwode, reached the Rue Bacquerot at 4 p.m., with a view to rendering immediate support but he was informed by the general officer commanding 4th Corps that the situation was not so favourable as he had hoped it would be, and that no further action by the cavalry was advisable. General Gough's command, therefore, retired to Estaires.

Three days' severe losses[edit]

The artillery of all kinds was handled with the utmost energy and skill, and rendered invaluable support in the prosecution of the attack. The losses during these three days' fighting were, I regret to say, very severe, numbering-

190 officers and 2,337 other ranks, killed.
359 officers and 8,174 other ranks, wounded.
23 officers and 1,728 other ranks, missing.

But the results attained were, in my opinion, wide and far-reaching. The enemy left several thousand dead on the battlefield, which were seen and counted; and we have positive information that upwards of 12,000 wounded were removed to the north-east and east by train. Thirty officers and 1,657 other ranks of the enemy were captured. I can best express my estimate of this battle by quoting an extract from a Special Order of the Day which I addressed to Sir Douglas Haig and the First Army at its conclusion:— "I am anxious to express to you personally my warmest appreciation of the skilful manner in which you have carried out your orders, and my fervent and most heartfelt appreciation of the magnificent gallantry and devoted, tenacious courage displayed by all ranks whom you have ably led to success and victory.” Some operations in the nature of holding attacks, carried out by troops of the Second Army, were instrumental in keeping the enemy in front of them occupied, and preventing reinforcements being sent from these portions of the front to the main point of attack.

Advance to L'Epinette[edit]

Open-air Kitchen in a Quarry at the Front

At 12.30 a.m. on March 12th the 17th Infantry Brigade of the 4th Division, 3rd Corps, engaged in an attack on the enemy which resulted in the capture of the village of L'Epinette and adjacent farms. Supported by a brisk fire from the 18th Infantry Brigade, the 17th Infantry Brigade, detailed for the attack, assaulted in two columns converging, and obtained the first houses of the village without much loss. The remainder of the village was very heavily wired, and the enemy got away by means of communicating trenches while our men were cutting through the wire. The enemy suffered considerable loss; our casualties being five officers and thirty other ranks killed and wounded. The result of this operation was that an advance of 300 yards was made on a front of half a mile. All attempts to retake this position have been repulsed with heavy loss to the enemy.

The General Officer Commanding the Second Corps arranged for an attack on a part of the enemy's position to the south-west of the village of Wytschaete which he had timed to commence at 10 a.m. on March 12th. Owing to dense fog, the assault could not be made until 4 o'clock in the afternoon. It was then commenced by the Wiltshire and Worcestershire Regiments, but was so hampered by the mist and the approach of darkness that nothing more was effected than holding the enemy to his ground. The action of St. Eloi referred to in the first paragraph of this dispatch commenced at 5 p.m. on March 14th by a very heavy cannonade which was directed against our trenches in front of St. Eloi, the village itself and the approaches to it. There is a large mound lying to the south-east of the village. When the artillery attack was at its height a mine was exploded under this mound, and a strong hostile infantry attack was immediately launched against the trenches and the mound.

Our artillery opened fire at once, as well as our infantry, and inflicted considerable losses on the enemy during their advance; but, chiefly owing to the explosion of the mine and the surprise of the overwhelming artillery attack, the enemy's infantry had penetrated the first line of trenches at some points. As a consequence the garrisons of other works which had successfully resisted the assault were enfiladed and forced to retire just before it turned back. A counter-attack was at once organised by the General Officer Commanding 82nd Brigade, under the orders of the General Officer Commanding 27th Division, who brought up a reserve brigade to support it.

Successful counter-attack[edit]

The attack was launched at 2 a.m., and the 82nd Brigade succeeded in capturing the portion of the village of St. Eloi which was in the hands of the enemy and a portion of the trenches east of it. At 3 a.m. the 80th Brigade in support took more trenches to the east and west of the village. The counter-attack, which was well carried out under difficult conditions, resulted in the recapture of all lost ground of material importance.

It is satisfactory to be able to record that, though the troops occupying the first line of trenches were at first overwhelmed, they afterwards behaved very gallantly in the counter-attack for the recovery of the lost ground; and the following units earned and received the special commendation of the Army Commander:— The 2nd Royal Irish Fusiliers, the 2nd Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry, the 1st Leinster Regiment, the 4th Rifle Brigade, and the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry. A vigorous attack made by the enemy on the 17th to recapture these trenches was repulsed with great loss.

In concluding his despatch Sir John French alludes to the invaluable work of the Royal Flying Corps during the period:

In addition to the work of reconnaissance and observation of artillery fire, the Royal Flying Corps was charged with the special duty of hampering the enemy's movements by destroying various points on his communications. The railways at Menin, Courtrai, Don and Douai were attacked, and it is known that very extensive damage was effected at certain of these places. Part of a troop train was hit by a bomb, a wireless installation near Lille is believed to have been effectively destroyed, and a house in which the enemy had installed one of his headquarters was set on fire. These afford other instances of successful operations of this character. Most of the objectives mentioned were attacked at a height of only 100 to 150 feet. In one case the pilot descended to about 50 feet above the point he was attacking.