The First Division In France – The Battle Of Neuve Chapelle

March 10th was the day set for a big battle framed up to take place on the Canadians’ right, opposite the village of Neuve Chapelle. A few weeks earlier General Joffre, the French commander, had inaugurated in the Champagne country a system of ” nibbling ” at the enemy’s line. ” Nibbling ” meant massing guns and troops opposite a special point in the enemy’s line ; then, fixing an objective, that is to say a road, hill, or village behind the enemy’s line, the guns would suddenly warm up early some morning, putting a curtain of fire over the enemy’s trenches. First the forward line would be shelled; then the shelling would stop while the French troops stormed the first line; then the second line would be shelled with similar results; and, lastly, the third line; then the territory thus wrested from the enemy would be consolidated. It was this idea which subsequently developed the tanks and the infernal creeping barrage.

The British decided to frame up a ” nibble ” at Neuve Chapelle. First, guns were got together at varying distances in the rear. Then General Haig, who commanded the army in the sector, issued an inspiring address and told the Canadians that the British were going to start the spring offensive there. During the winter a new army and a new war machine had been created by the British. It was no doubt partly to try out these that the attack was planned at Neuve Chapelle. A German salient projected into the British position at this war-shattered village, and the intention was to flatten it out.

The programme for the big battle ran somewhat as follows : everything being in readiness, several divisions were to be brought up behind the trenches at Neuve Chapelle during the night of the 9th and 10th of March. Next morning at 7.30 the ball was to open. The guns were to form two zones of fire. The big guns were to smash the first line of trenches for a mile into fragments, while the second line of lighter guns were to rain shrapnel on the ground over which sup-ports might come, so that the first line would be isolated. When the first line was sufficiently hammered the infantry was to rip the German parapets with rapid rifle-fire, and then charge with bayonets across No Man’s Land. Once inside the first line of parapets bomb-throwing parties were to be told off right and left to clear the trenches. These bombing parties consisted of three or four men with bayonets to lead and two or three bomb-throwers to throw their death-dealing missiles at the enemy ahead of the bayonet men. The leading bayonet men carried flags, which they were to show on the parapets as they passed along so that they would not come under the fire of the supporting infantry.

Neuve Chapelle was a typical Franco-Flemish village in the war zone ; a huddle of houses and shops, partly unroofed by shell-fire, deserted by the populace, and shunned by the soldiers. It had been, in peace days, a smiling village of two-storey brick houses with red-tiled roofs. It possessed the typical church and grave-yard such as are found in all of these Flemish villages. Almost every second house was a wine or beer saloon, an estaminet. The British rush in October, 1914, had driven back the German lines beyond Armentières, Aubers, and Fromelles. Neuve Chapelle had several times changed hands, but had finally been held by the Germans. They had a lot of stout-hearted rogues holding on there who would not let go; so Neuve Chapelle formed the apex of a salient in the British lines, which weakened it north so much that later on good ground had to be given up south of Lille in order to straighten and consolidate along the line of the river Des Layes for the hard winter campaign.

The attack on Neuve Chapelle had been under consideration for several weeks, and its details had been worked out by General John Gough, the Chief Staff Officer of the First Corps, who was killed by an accidental shot on February 20th, before being able to give the final touches to his admirable plan of battle.

The immediate plan of attack was briefly : an intense artillery preparation; a curtain of shells; and a vigorous infantry advance immediately the guns had ceased pounding the enemy’s position. The new warfare was to be fully tested and the new army was to be put on its mettle. Men who had been busy in civil occupations in the cities, towns, and villages of Great Britain and the Colonies were to .be tried out side by side with the war-hardened regulars.

The Canadian division was to play a minor part, a waiting part, in this engagement. It was to hold an important section of the front, but, with the exception of the divisional artillery, was not to be brought into action.

The attack on Neuve Chapelle was entrusted to the First Army, under Sir Douglas Haig; the Fourth Corps having the left of the line immediately in front of the objective; and the Indian Corps the right. It was necessary to keep the Germans occupied along the whole battle-line from Armentières to La Bassée, to prevent reinforcements being sent to the lines about Neuve Chapelle ; and simultaneously with the main attack the First Corps was to give battle at Givenchy ; and the Third Corps, from the Second Army, was to conduct a similar offensive immediately south of Armentières. The Canadians were in a position between two and three miles north-west of Neuve Chapelle, and held over six thousand yards of trenches, having on their left the 19th Brigade and on their right the 15th. Their task was to stand fast until such time as the 15th Brigade moved; and then they were to go into action with it. But, as we shall see, the battle was to develop in such a manner that only the forces immediately in front of Neuve Chapelle were to take part in it.

The preparations for battle had been conducted with great secrecy. The British, for the time being, had control of the air and were able to move men and guns in rear of the trenches without the knowledge of the Germans. By March 8th the battle plans had been fully matured; and Sir John French issued his instructions to his Corps commanders. On this same day Canadian officers met General Rawlinson, Commanding Officer of the Fourth Army Corps, at his headquarters near Sailly, and for the first time had the whole plan of the battle explained to them.

The attack was to take place at daybreak on the 10th; and on the night of the 9th the roads in the rear of the British positions were packed with troops moving forward to the firing lines and with guns taking up battle positions. The majority of the guns were assembled immediately in rear of the point to be attacked; the light guns about Richebourg St. Vaast, between two and three thousand yards from Neuve Chapelle ; and the heavies about Lacouture and Vieille Chapelle, distant between five and six thousand yards. The Canadian guns were located between Fleurbaix and Laventie, in such a position as to command the villages of Aubers and Fromelles on the north-west face of the Aubers Ridge. Here also were British horse artillery from India. Naval guns mounted on railway trucks were located at Croix Blanche.

The men were made ready for a protracted struggle. Each had in his haversack two days’ rations; was provided with 150 rounds of ammunition in his pouches; and carried besides two bandoliers, each of fifty rounds, slung over his shoulders. Before taking up their positions the men were given a hot breakfast and invigorated by hot coffee. The commissariat, which never failed in providing the forces with food, was seeing to it that the men went into the battle-line fit and strong.

On this eventful day reveille was sounded earlier than usual, and shortly before dawn the Canadian battalions fell in by companies. But already many of the division had taken up their positions in the trenches. The Germans on the Canadian front were on the alert; and as the men went forward through the darkness from the support trenches and billets, occasional bursts of shrapnel fell along the line of their advance. Some of the companies marched down Rue de Bois and found concealment among the farmhouses. Others cautiously moved across the fields, scouting along ditches and hedges. A considerable force took up a position among farmhouses several hundred yards east of the corner of Rue de Bois and the Fromelles road. Near this point there was a huge straw stack, which was being used for observation purposes. In the rear of it Captain Pope, of the 3rd Brigade Staff, had established a telephone office, camouflaged by wheat sheaves of the crop of the preceding year. Near at hand was a substantial barn on an elevated position, and from its upper storey, by means of powerful field binoculars, an excellent view of the immediate scene of action could be obtained.

The day of battle dawned fine and cool, similar to many days that had preceded it ; and an occasional roar from the rear told that the guns were awake. The Germans replied with their heavies and with spasmodic bursts of rifle and machine-gun fire in the direction of the British first-line trenches. Overhead aeroplanes soared eastward, the drumming of their propellers having an ominous note for the Germans, but sounding like sweet music to the British. They had an important task to perform. As soon as the enemy realized that the attacking force was on them, they would rush forward reinforcements from Lille and Turcoing to Neuve Chapelle, which was comparatively lightly held. To hinder this, squadrons of bombing planes were sent out to attack all railway points, such as the junctions of Menin, Courtrai, Don, and Douai, in the German rear; and most effectively did the gallant young airmen do their work.

Due to the British air superiority and the secrecy with which the entire plans for the battle had been worked out, the enemy was totally unaware of the huge preparations that had been made against Neuve Chapelle; but on this comparatively quiet spring morning, he was fronted with trenches jammed with men eager to go over the top; and in the rear of these trenches were guns of all calibres, from light field guns to naval guns and the powerful 15-in. weapons that were equal to the best products of the gun factories of Germany and Austria. For the first time in seven months of war, a battle was to open in which the British commanders felt that in the matter of guns they had a pronounced superiority over the enemy. In rear of the trenches, too, the 2nd Division of cavalry was held in reserve, ready for a dash towards Lille, if all opposition should be overcome along Aubers Ridge.

After the first few ranging shots there was silence. The Canadian officers from their points of observation expectantly fixed their glasses on the British lines marked by brown sand-bags, now hidden by hedges, again showing distinctly as they crossed the highways, only to be lost to view by clumps of tall elms, by houses, and the church at the corner called Fauquissart. The German trenches could also be seen, crowned with rows of white sand-bags, interspersed here and there with blue bundles that looked like bed-ticks filled with earth.

The sun was now up ; day had broken bright and clear; and over the whole scene rested an ominous silence. But these crowded British trenches told their story. All the soldiers were on the alert ; and beside them were short trench ladders that had been brought forward to enable them the more speedily to go over the top when the critical moment came to dash across No Man’s Land.

At 7.30 a. m. the British batteries began their work of destruction; and soon over three hundred guns, light and heavy, were storming the German front line trenches. Over the heads of the waiting infantry a stream of iron roared in continuous flight to the barbed-wire entanglements and parapets of the enemy; the shells from the field guns and howitzers with deadly accuracy skimming the British trenches and smashing through the wire entanglements of the enemy, ploughing the earth into gigantic furrows, crashing into the enemy’s strongholds, blowing up parapets, and filling the air with green and yellow smoke. Sand-bags and machine guns flew fifty feet in the air; and among them were dark objects that looked to the distant observers like the bodies of men. In a few minutes the enemy parapets over a wide range had disappeared. So continuous was the artillery fire that it sounded as if a gigantic machine gun were at work. Even at their remote distance from the main attack the Canadians felt the earth tremble as though shaken by an earth-quake. Nothing of the enemy front could now be seen, on account of the yellow smoke from the lyddite of the bursting shells. But behind this in the air there was a ring of fire, where the shrapnel shells were bursting and showering a leaden curtain to prevent the enemy supports from coming up. The Canadian eighteens and 60-pounders had joined in this chorus of war, and were sending their shells into the German positions about Aubers. The German gunners under this deluge of fire made a feeble response, the Canadian guns receiving momentary attention. But their observation was bad, and the half dozen or so 40-pounder shells that they sent in the direction of the Canadian artillery burst harmlessly in a field many hundred yards from the guns.

Meanwhile in the British trenches the men waited expectantly and impatiently for the guns to cease firing. Every soldier was eager for the signal that meant a dash over the top. About eight o’clock, after half an hour of the intensest bombardment so far experienced in the war, the roar of the guns ceased. This was immediately followed by fierce musketry and machine-gun fire, which sounded to the Canadians for all the world like the distant thunder of Niagara Falls. At five minutes past eight this fire too died down; the whistles of the officers gave the signal; and in a wild rush the men in the trenches went over the top cheering, and sped across No Man’s Land in the face of machine-gun and rifle fire from isolated positions that had withstood the bombardment.

The centre of the position was attacked by the 2nd Londoners and 2nd Berkshires of the 25th Brigade. Like an immense forward line in a football rush the men of these regiments dashed forward to the enemy’s trenches. So effective had been the bombardment at this point that only from isolated strongholds here and there in the line, where riflemen or machine-gun crews had escaped disaster, came opposition. But there was no stopping the rush, and in less than ten minutes a large section of the German front line trenches was in the hands of the attackers ; and the few cowering occupants, yellow from the lyddite fumes, who had as by a miracle survived the deluge of shells that had been poured upon them, crawled from their places of concealment and held up pleading hands in token of surrender. After the Londoners and Berks came the 1st Irish Rifles and the 2nd Rifle Brigade, dashing through the victorious forces and speeding towards the village beyond.

While this triumph was being achieved in front of Neuve Chapelle, to the left of the line the forces were not having such easy going. The 23rd Infantry Brigade led the attack on this front and dashed forward simultaneously with the 25th Brigade. But despite the half-hour’s bombardment to which the Germans had been subjected, the barbed-wire entanglement over a considerable section of the trenches was practically intact ; and the 2nd Scottish Rifles and 2nd Middlesex found forward progress impossible. They threw themselves against the wire, seeking an opening, but re-coiled under the devastating fire from the rifles and machine guns. The 2nd Devonshires and 2nd West Yorkshires, who were in support, likewise courageously attempted to overcome the obstacles, and succeeded in carrying several hundred yards of the enemy’s position. Even this partial success could not have been gained had not General Pinney, Commanding Officer of the 23rd Brigade, when he found his command held up, advanced to the scene of action and inspected the obstacles. He saw that the trenches at this point could be gained, if at all, only with a heavy casualty list; and he therefore withdrew his troops momentarily and sent word back to the guns to pound once more the wire in front of the trenches on the left. For some minutes a rain of shells fell on the enemy’s right, and then with a rush the sorely tried regiments won their way through.

On the extreme right the Garhwalis, Gurkhas, Dehra Duns, 2nd Leicesters, and 3rd Londoners were doing equal deeds of valour with varying success. They too ran up against intact wire entanglements, the Garhwalis suffering heavily; but in the end the Germans in this section of their front trenches were all driven out, slain, or captured.

Meanwhile over the heads of the victors shells were being hurled from the British guns. The village of Neuve Chapelle was now subjected to a concentrated fire; and its shell-shattered walls were soon nothing but crumbling heaps of bricks hidden in clouds of dust and smoke. After a brief but effective pounding of the village, the British infantry again moved forward in a spirited rush. There were still a few strongly fortified positions in the village itself and its suburbs; but the British came on with irresistible dash, and in a short time the Rifles of the 25th Brigade and the 3rd Garhwalis were battling their way through the streets of Neuve Chapelle. By twelve o’clock the village was practically clear of the foe, and the second line of captured trenches was being consolidated.

Meanwhile the German guns had not been idle. The enemy had been taken by surprise, but they had abundance of artillery along Aubers Ridge. This had been quickly brought into play, and a torrent of shells deluged the British front and rear. So effective was this fire that practically every telephone wire was cut and means of rapid communication with supports destroyed. It had created havoc, too, in some of the regiments, particularly on the left of the line; and be-fore the advance could be renewed it was found necessary to reorganize the attacking forces.

By this time word had come to the Canadian officers in the vicinity of Captain Pope’s telephone station that the British had not only succeeded in capturing the first line trenches, but were in complete possession of Neuve Chapelle. The Canadians were now in momentary expectation that they would be ordered into the fighting line to aid in storming the strong defences of Aubers Ridge, the capture of which would clear the way to Lille. But they were to be disappointed. There was a lengthy, disastrous delay in the battle. For a time the gun-fire on both sides died down; and it was not until 3 p. m. that the British had their forces sufficiently in hand to attempt a further attack. The Germans had now somewhat recovered from their fright, and, it would appear, had received some reinforcements.

At 3 p. m. the battle was renewed with energy, the main points of attack being Bois du Biez, an important wood to the south-east of Neuve Chapelle, and the village of Piètre, to the north-east. Through the region now under attack, between Neuve Chapelle and Aubers Ridge, ran the river Des Layes. The eastern bank of this river was held in force by the Germans, and from bridge-heads a destructive fire from rifles and machine guns swept the attackers. Along this line until night fall attack and counter-attack took terrible toll of the combatants. At one strongly fortified position, Moulin-du-Piètre, the ground was littered with dead and dying. When night fell the Germans were still holding their own; and the British consolidated the ground they had won and waited for the battle of the morrow.

The morning of the 11th broke mistily, and observation for the guns was difficult. As a consequence the infantry were unable to make further advance through lack of proper artillery preparation. The mist gave the Germans a welcome respite, and they quickly moved up from Lille and Turcoing considerable reinforcements.

During the day the battle raged furiously in Bois du Biez and about machine-gun positions and trenches at Moulin-du-Piètre ; and night closed with ghastly losses to both sides and no definite results. The 12th continued misty, and the German reinforcements had been greatly augmented. But though attack and counter-attack were continued until nightfall neither side could make progress. The British could not make any permanent impression on the Aubers Ridge line of trenches ; and the Germans were unable to drive the victors of Neuve Chapelle from the territory they had won on the 10th. By evening it was a case of stale-mate, the Germans giving over their counter-attacks and the British resting content with consolidating the line immediately to the east of Neuve Chapelle.

A victory had been won — a victory that told the British that with proper artillery preparation they could smash through German lines prepared through months of arduous labour. However, it was only a partial victory: a tract of French soil one thousand yards in depth and in breadth three thousand had been wrested from the enemy at terrible cost. Outposts of their defences had been captured; but in their most vital points they were still firmly entrenched. The artillery preparation had been on a vast scale, but it had not been sufficiently powerful. Again someone had blundered. The supports that ought to have been thrown in failed to appear; and the three days’ battle was fought on the part of the British almost solely by the men who had rushed over the top on the morning of the 10th or by their immediate supports.

When conditions around Neuve Chapelle had died down once more to the routine of trench warfare, the British had time to count the cost of their victory. It was out of all proportion to the results achieved. Some of the brigades which had taken part in the battle had a casualty list of over seventy-five per cent, of their strength ; and the total casualties amounted to 562 officers and 12,239 men. About 1,800 were reported missing: these were either killed or wounded in the fluctuating struggle around Moulin-du-Piètre or in the Bois du Biez, on ground that the British had fought over but were unable to hold. The Germans had savagely counter-attacked in mass formation during the greater part of two days ; and their losses must have greatly exceeded those of the British, but of these no accurate figures can be obtained. They left in the hands of the victors as prisoners 30 officers and 1,650 men, and their total casualties were variously estimated at from 15,000 to 18,000.

The Canadians had been comparatively idle while this three days’ battle raged such a short distance from the trenches they were holding. For the greater part of the time they were subjected to spasmodic bursts of artillery, rifle, and machine-gun fire, but suffered few casualties. They had not taken part in the main action; but they had been under fire and showed the steadiness of veterans. The three days’ experience was invaluable. It taught them lessons that were to stand them in good stead when, six weeks later, in front of Ypres, they took their place in the most courage-testing and nerve-racking battle of the Great War.