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Neuve Chapelle 1915: The BEF’s first offensive


The operation at Neuve Chapelle in the Artois region of northern France during 10 to 12 March 1915 was significant because it was the first planned offensive strike upon a German trench system on the Western Front conducted independently by the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) during the First World War.

The battles fought during 1914 were classified as encounter battles, defined as a series of actions which were unforeseen where local commanders on the ground had to react. By the end of 1914 the war of movement had transcended into a stalemate where opposing sides were entrenched in a line of trenches that stretched from the Swiss Border to the Belgian Coast, a line that would be known as ‘the Western Front’. A narrow expanse known as No Mans Land separated these lines and these trenches were protected by barbed wire, machine guns and heavy artillery, which meant that opposing Armies would prevent each side from penetrating each sides defences. To peer above the parapet during the day or attempt to cross this stretch of ground meant certain death and the opposing forces were unable to breakthrough into their opponents lines.

With their troops frustrated because they were forced to live underground in the muddy, waterlogged trenches during the harsh cold winter of 2014/15, the challenge for Generals on both sides in 1915 was how to get their troops out from those trenches, across No Mans Land into enemy trenches and consolidate ground without being mown down by machine guns or obliterated by heavy shellfire.

During early 1915 the French were considering launching offensives in Champagne and on the Arras sector, while the British were planning to launch an assault at Neuve Chapelle with the objective of capturing the village and Aubers Ridge. This ridge was strategically important as a launching position for further initiatives to capture Lille, which was used by its German occupiers as a major transport hub and a key link in the rail network which was used to transfer German forces from north to south along the Western Front. A breach in the German line on this sector would interfere with the German communications and transport network.

Field Marshal Sir John French, Commander-in-Chief of the BEF designated General Sir Douglas Haigs First Army to carry out the offensive at Neuve Chapelle. Haig had directed I Corps during the 1914 campaign, but the operation at Neuve Chapelle as First Army commander was his first experience of controlling an attack. Haig and his sub-ordinate generals who were planning and organising this operation had joined the Army decades earlier during the Victorian era. They had been trained to fight colonial wars and the strategy of advance and attack were indoctrinated within that training, but this proved to be an ineffective tactic during the 1914 campaign once the war of movement ceased and trench warfare had begun. This training would not equip these Generals to deal with static trench warfare and the weapons of modern industrialised war in 1915 and the Neuve Chapelle operation marked the beginning of their attempt to develop strategies to break the stalemate. Sir James Edmonds commented in the Official History:

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).

Despite being a soldier from the Victorian era, fighting a modern war, Haig was not afraid to be experimental as he embraced new technology and strategies in his approach to tackling the challenges of getting his infantry across No Mans Land and penetrating the German lines. The operation at Neuve Chapelle saw innovations in the first effective use of infantry and artillery working cohesively in a British offensive, together with aeroplanes belonging to the Royal Flying Corps. Although he did not understand how aeroplanes could be used in warfare during early 1915 he was keen to investigate their potential use at Neuve Chapelle, where development in aerial reconnaissance techniques in photographing enemy positions from the sky provided infantry commanders on the ground the first glimpse from the air of enemy targets to be assaulted before they attacked. Trench maps were drawn from these photos and this intelligence would aid infantry on the ground. During the Battle of Neuve Chapelle the Royal Flying Corps also took part in bombing of strategically important positions and observers were able to direct artillery batteries to targets behind the German lines. Although primitive this form of warfare would develop throughout the war.

The operation at Neuve Chapelle marked the first employment of a planned artillery barrage and the largest concentration of artillery firepower to date by British artillery. The sudden intensive bombardment lasting 35 minutes on German targets commenced at 7.30 a.m. on 10 March 1915 demonstrated the awesome potential of concentrated artillery fire upon a confined area could blast a breach in what was believed to be an impregnable German trench system. Providing secrecy was maintained the enemy could be overwhelmed by such a bombardment and be too surprised to offer any effective resistance. Major-General Davies wrote in the 8th Division report:

The artillery fire on the 10th of March was nothing less than devastating in its effects: that it was so, is due to skilful placing of the batteries by the artillery commander and to the patient and careful preparations made by the batteries themselves. It is to be noted that those preparations, including registration, were carried out without apparently arousing the suspicions of the enemy. (National Archives: 8th Division War Diary)

Lieutenant Malcolm Kennedy, 2nd Cameronian (Scottish Rifles), witnessed the awesome spectacle of this intensive bombardment as he waited for the signal to advance. He recalled: There was a deafening roar as our batteries in the rear opened fire. Heralded by a deep toned vibrating sound over-head, as though hundreds of express trains were rushing through the air. Hell then seemed to break loose as shell after shell, from guns of all calibres, burst with ear-splitting explosions on the German positions opposite…But from time to time great masses of earth could be seen hurtling through the air as shells struck the ground to our front and tore it to bits. From time to time, too, huge, jagged chunks of metal, fragments of a bursting shell, would be seen spinning through the air, while the thick yellow fumes of lyditte rose high above the German trenches and came drifting towards us. (IWM P392: Papers of Captain Malcolm Kennedy / University of Sheffield Library)

As soon as the barrage lifted to German positions beyond Neuve Chapelle at 8.05 a.m., whistles were blown that signalled the infantry advance, when IV Corps, commanded by Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Rawlinson and Indian Corps commanded by Lieutenant General Sir James Willcocks attacked this salient in a converging attack on a 2,000 yard front to seize the village prior to an assault on Aubers Ridge. The British artillery bombardment had succeeded in subduing the German occupants holding Neuve Chapelle and enabled British infantry belonging to British 8th Division to cross No Mans Land and capture German trenches. Sergeant William Siddons, 2nd Middlesex Regiment was in the first wave, but was wounded as he got close to the German first trench.

As we dashed forward, we saw the heads and bayonets of the Germans in the nearest trench, which was less than a hundred yards away. One of the enemys officers jumped up in an effort to lead his men to the attack, but he was shot down and fell. The fighting at close quarters was terrific. Our men fought like demons possessed, and they were met by a determined enemy, but our bombardment had shattered the nerves of many of them, and we gave them a real taste of what can be done by roused British soldiers.

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 British artillery bombardment at Neuve Chapelle demonstrated the necessity to confirm that the wire was cut before sending infantry to advance towards the German lines. The artillery barrage was not a total success on 10 March on the sector held by 2nd Middlesex Regiment. The two 6” Howitzers that were designated the task of destroying the German wire before their advance failed because they arrived in position during the afternoon on the day before the attack, the artillery officers in command were unfamiliar with the territory and they had arrived too late to register their guns due to poor light. As a consequence, the left flank of 2nd Middlesex Regiment and some sections belonging to the 2nd Cameronian (Scottish Rifles) were caught in the German wire and suffered heavy casualties. Brigadier General A. Holland reported on wire cutting in the post operation report:

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 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)

Despite some of the wire not being cut 8th Division were able to breach the German trenches and enter the village of Neuve Chapelle which had now been reduced to ruins and debris. It was here that house to house skirmishes took place as they searched for German survivors sheltering in underground cellars and neutralising German resistance. They were able to meet soldiers from the Indian Corps inside the village who were fighting a similar battle during their advance from the south west. Within two hours after the attack began the objective of Neuve Chapelle had been captured.

It is important to note that the assault upon Neuve Chapelle marked a change in the components of the British Army that were deployed on the Western Front. The BEF had suffered severe casualties during the 1914 campaigns and it was difficult to replace those experienced officers, NCOs and soldiers that were lost. Those civilians who answered Field Marshal Earl Herbert Kitcheners call for volunteers to enlist would need weapons, uniforms, equipment and training and it would take two years for them to be ready for active service. In early 1915 when Field Marshal Sir John French considered the prospect of launching an assault upon Neuve Chapelle his resources were limited. Regular soldiers who had been swiftly transported from garrisons in the colonies to Britain would form the 7th and 8th Divisions and would not be sufficient to carry out IV Corps attack alone. The British Army had no choice but to use Territorial soldiers whose primary role was home defence and not intended to serve overseas, and the Indian Army, a colonial force, because they were the only fully trained organisation within the British Empire available at that time. These Territorial and Colonial soldiers had been fed into the line piecemeal during the later stages of the 1914 campaign and had received their baptism of fire. The BEF therefore became reliant upon the Territorial Army and the Indian Army to bolster their ranks. They would form General Sir Douglas Haigs First Army, comprising of IV Corps and Indian Corps and they would prove their effectiveness as fighting soldiers at Neuve Chapelle during March 1915. The BEF would not have been able to have conducted the operation at Neuve Chapelle without reliance upon the Indian Corps and the Territorial Army.

Lieutenant-General Sir James Willcocks praised the conduct of the Regulars, Territorials and Indian soldiers as they worked together to capture Neuve Chapelle:

I desire to bring to notice the fine spirit and soldierly conduct of the troops engaged. British, Territorials and Indians, all vied with one another and have received the commendation of the Army Commander and the Field Marshal Commander-in-Chief. (National Archives: WO 158/258: Neuve Chapelle Operations: Memorandum & Reports).

Willcocks also singled out the important role conducted by the Territorials:

The Territorial Battalions engaged, behaved with extraordinary steadiness, and in one case - the 3rd London Regiment - successfully carried out a direct attack and charge under conditions which might well have tried veteran troops. (National Archives: WO 158/258: Neuve Chapelle Operations: Memorandum & Reports).

The artillery were unable to replicate the successful bombardment carried out on 10 March during the two remaining days of the operation. There were not sufficient supplies of munitions and the poor visibility caused by the morning mists made accurate observation of potential German targets impossible. Precise positions of the German defences were unknown and there was not sufficient time for registration of the guns for the operations on 11 and 12 March. The British had failed to exploit the successful capture of Neuve Chapelle and the German counter attack to retake the village on 12 March, marked the resumption of trench warfare.

Although Neuve Chapelle was successfully captured by IV and Indian Corps, the overall operation had failed because the capture of Aubers Ridge had not been accomplished. It is uncertain whether 8th Division could have reached Aubers Ridge on 10 March if they attempted to push forward, because there were still German forces that could have opposed them in between Neuve Chapelle and the ridge. Even if they had secured the ridge it would be doubtful whether the exhausted British and Indian troops would have been able to defend it against fresh German reinforcements that had been swiftly brought into the region. They would not have had a chance to consolidate the ridge amidst German counter attacks and supplies of ammunition to provide continued artillery support were limited.

The high casualty figures sustained at Neuve Chapelle highlighted the human cost of carrying out an offensive upon trenches during World War One. British, Indian and German dead and wounded lay amongst the devastation and it was too dangerous to recover those that lay in No Mans Land. German casualties at Neuve Chapelle were estimated at 108 officers and approximately 8,000 men. Most of these casualties, 70 officers and 6,000 men were believed to have been sustained by 6th Bavarian Reserve Division during the counter attack upon British and Indian occupied lines on 12th March. (Official History of the War: Military Operations France & Belgium 1915 Volume 1 by Brigadier-General J.E. Edmonds, published 1927). German prisoners captured at Neuve Chapelle included 30 officers 1,657 German who were transported across the English Channel to Southampton where they were boarded on trains and some of those were taken to internment camp near Dorchester. The British and Indian casualty rate during the three day offensive at Neuve Chapelle was high. Haigs First Army lost 544 officers and 11,108 men casualties totalling 11,652.

Despite the failure to secure Aubers Ridge the first planned British offensive of World War One at Neuve Chapelle proved that German lines on the Western Front could be penetrated under certain conditions. Providing support troops could be assembled in secrecy, they could surprise an unsuspecting enemy after a short intensive bombardment whose wire would be cut, trenches levelled and nerves shattered. However the operation underlined the difficulties of trench warfare in terms of attack and defence, as well as highlighting problems of command during a battle. The operation at Neuve Chapelle showed weaknesses in communications when German artillery had severed many British telephone lines throughout the operation, which denied British commanders the ability to accurately assess and report the progress of the battle. They were able to cut communication wires that were laid exposed above ground and were able to severe lines buried underground.

Commanders became reliant upon runners and horse dispatch riders to transfer messages. Some were able to cross over country when roads were congested with troops, but during German artillery barrages many messages were either delayed or never received due to runners being killed or wounded. This resulted in a communication not being delivered and in other instances seriously delayed by several hours which meant that by the time it reached divisional HQ, the situation had changed at the front line, and that any decisions and orders being made by divisional commanders might not be appropriate for the current situation on the battlefield. Divisional commanders were making plans to continue the offensive based on outdated information. During those hours of delay the situation would change drastically. As a consequence a regular system of messenger orderlies for communication between battalion and advanced Brigade Headquarters were established in each battalion after the battle of Neuve Chapelle.

There were misunderstandings at battalion level where attacks were disjointed, some units attacking alone, without support from their flanks to no effect. Some casualties were the result of friendly fire where British shells fell upon their own soldiers. Although the German line had been breached at Neuve Chapelle, the BEF were unable to exploit the breakthrough due to lack of resources, poor communication and brigades being unable to work in cohesion to maintain the momentum of the advance. The problems experienced at Neuve Chapelle would be confronted in future offensives and it would take three years to find a strategy to break through the German lines and achieve a decisive victory that would end the war.

The operation was an important step for Haig in regards to his career, for this was his first operation conducted as commander of First Army. Haig partially succeeded in achieving the operations objectives. Although Aubers Ridge had not be captured, his First Army had successfully crossed No Mans Land after the arranged 35 minute barrage, were able breach the German trenches to capture Neuve Chapelle and straighten the British line east of the village. Although the operation did not have a major strategic impact upon the course of the war, it marked the beginning of planned British offensive operations and formed a template for how future operations would be conducted during the war using infantry, artillery and aeroplanes. The abilities and potential of the Royal Flying Corps were realised at Neuve Chapelle demonstrating their capabilities to gather intelligence and provide aerial photographs of ground to be attack. The first use of aerial photos had provided commanders with detailed information about positions of enemy wire, trenches and strongpoints. This was the first time in the history of warfare that attacking forces could see beyond the lines that they were assaulting. They also proved useful in attacking railway hubs and communications behind the lines disrupt the ability for German reserves to be brought forward. Artillery would be used to soften and weaken enemy defences and positions prior to an infantry assault, aided by forward observation officers on the ground and Royal Flying Corps observers in the skies above.

Furthermore, German commanders were placed under pressure and had to deploy re-enforcements from other sectors of the Western Front from Ypres in the north and from the battle being fought against French forces at Notre Dame de Lorette to Neuve Chapelle to prevent British First Army including Indian Corps from gaining further ground.The action at Neuve Chapelle raised Haigs profile and that of First Army. Haig was confident that the offensive at Neuve Chapelle bode well for the future. He wrote:

The losses sustained by the 1st Army, though heavy, are fully compensated for by the results achieved, which have brought us one step forward in our efforts to end the war; and the British soldier has once more given the Germans a proof of his superiority in a fight, as well of his pluck and determination to conquer.

The spirit and energy shown by all ranks augur well for the future, and I feel confident that the success achieved by the 1st Army at Neuve Chapelle is the fore-runner of still greater victories which must be gained in order to bring the war to a successful conclusion. (National Archives: WO 95/1089: The action taken by the Indian Corps in the Battle of Neuve Chapelle).

Haig had shown that soldiers belonging to the BEF could attack as well as defend. Both German and French commanders were compelled to change their negative view of the British Army. They would no longer be regarded as a force limited to holding sectors of the line in a defensive capacity. The BEF had shown that they could break through the line and capture ground and hold it. The capture of Neuve Chapelle instilled confidence in French commanders and proved that the BEF was not a token force, but an effective fighting force, which improved relations between British and French commanders. Joffre sent French Corps Commanders to visit Haig at his headquarters to learn how First Army achieved the accomplishment of breaking through German lines and capturing Neuve Chapelle. During April 1915 Joffre asked the British Army to play a more prominent role in future offensives alongside the French Army. Although Britain was a junior partner in the Allied coalition they were now being taken seriously by the French. Personally for Haig the experience of commanding an Army at Neuve Chapelle and overseeing the planning and implementation of further operations carried out during 1915 would assist Haigs development as a commander and assist his military career, for when it came the decision of finding a suitable successor to replace French as Commander-in-Chief later that year, Haig was the strongest candidate available.

Although he was not credited for the success of capturing Neuve Chapelle in the post operation report, Haig eventually received recognition for his role in the planning of the operation from Field Marshal Sir John Frenchs dispatch on 5 April 1915.

Whilst the success attained was due to the magnificent bearing and indomitable courage displayed by the troops of the 4th and Indian Corps, I consider that the able and skilful dispositions which were made by the General Officer Commanding First Army contributed to the defeat of the enemy and to the capture of his position. The energy and vigour with which General Sir Douglas Haig handled his command show him to be a leader of great ability and power. (London Gazette, 14 April 1915 – Field Marshal Sir John French Dispatch dated 5 April 1915).

Kaiser Wilhelms opinion of the BEF changed when news reached him in Berlin confirming the capture of Neuve Chapelle. They were no longer a contemptible little army as viewed by Kaiser Wilhelm, a mere token force to hold sections of the Western Front with just a defensive capacity, they had proved that were able to launch offensive operations. Furthermore the British offensive at Neuve Chapelle caused panic in Lille enforcing the German occupants to relocate their headquarters and military hospital to Tournai. It persuaded him to think that the BEF would play an effective role in the war and it brought Haig to the attention of the Kaiser as a general to be respected. Brigadier-General Charteris commented:

Moreover, the fame of the achievements of the British was not restricted to the fighting front, but had reached Berlin itself; and Haig, always appreciative of praise, received from Lord Esher the flattering news that the Kaiser had stated in an interview with an American that the British I Corps under Haig was the best in the world. Haig, always anxious to give due credit to others, relied that the success of his command was due to entirely to the excellent staff, which had worked together in peace, and which had trained the troops with him at Aldershot. “It was” he said, “a compliment to Aldershot methods and Aldershot training, rather than to my own command in battle”. (Field Marshal Earl Haig by Brigadier-General John Charteris, published Cassell & Company Limited, 1919).

If this comment was made by the Kaiser after Neuve Chapelle, his intelligence gatherers had failed to note that Haig was in command of First Army, not I Corps.British, Belgian and French Generals were not the only commanders learning lessons from past offensives in trying to decipher how they were going to break through the German lines in order to expel the army of occupation from Belgium and France. Their German adversaries had gained territory in these countries, lost heavily and were determined not relinquish any ground. Haig’s First Army’s capture of Neuve Chapelle demonstrated that it was dangerous to continue to underestimate the capabilities of the BEF and that German strategy had to change. German commanders had to readjust their opinion of the BEF and learn from their failure to prevent a breach in their line. Before Neuve Chapelle German lines opposite British trenches were occupied with few troops for they did not expect the British to attack. They were not regarded as offensive troops and thought that they posed little threat but the penetration of their lines and capture of Neuve Chapelle forced them to change their strategy. The British breakthrough of the German line and capture of Neuve Chapelle during March 1915 shocked German commanders to the extent that they could no longer place reliance upon a single line of defence. If Germany was to retain the land that they had conquered during 1914 and solidify the stalemate they would need to improve and strengthen those defences. Going forward in order to hold onto the ground that they had conquered, second and third German defensive lines had to be constructed along the Western Front.

During the months after Neuve Chapelle it was evident that German defences continued to be strengthened making the job of entering the German lines more difficult. Instead of one trench line to assault and breakthrough, they would have two trench systems to tackle. A second line was established, protected with another line of barbed wire, three thousand yards behind the first line linked by a series of communication trenches. The Western Front was rapidly becoming more formidable and increasingly difficult to breakthrough. The chroniclers of The Indian Corps in France Lieutenant-Colonel Merewether and Sir Frederick Smith thought in hindsight that it might have been better not to have attacked at Neuve Chapelle during March 1915 for it shocked their opponents in expanding their defensive trench system, which was apparent at the battles of Festubert and Loos in 1915 and would also be applied on the Somme during 1916, making the ability to breakthrough German lines that much harder.

The first day of the operation on 10 March 1915 with the breakthrough of German lines and the capture of Neuve Chapelle was deemed as a success, however the failure to exploit those gains by bringing up reserves to push forward the advance meant that the pace of the operation lost momentum and the failure to capture Aubers Ridge.

The Battle of Neuve Chapelle had no impact upon the strategic situation on the Western Front. However it showed that after several months of static trench warfare, the BEF could break the stalemate and penetrate the German lines to capture and consolidate ground. The operation highlighted that the German lines on the Western Front were not impregnable and a breakthrough could be made. The capture of Neuve Chapelle was widely reported as a great success in newspapers weeks after the operation and nine Victoria Crosses were awarded to individuals relating to this action, five of which were awarded posthumously. This successful breach in the German line helped Field Marshal Sir John French to reinforce the notion that the Western Front was where the war should be fought and where defeat of Germany would eventually achieved; especially when some politicians and generals were considering other theatres such as Gallipoli to initiate operations in order to avoid confronting the problems of breaking through the Western Front. It proved to troops of the BEF that the stalemate of trench warfare could be broken.

The capture of two miles of strongly defended German trenches and the village of Neuve Chapelle together had demonstrated that the BEF were an effective fighting force and instilled confidence in British commanders and their French allies. The operation at Neuve Chapelle provided a set piece template for British, French and German commanders. However, opposing Generals would still face the same challenges after Neuve Chapelle for in order to achieve ultimate victory their infantry still had to advance across No Mans Land, breakthrough the barbed wire, evading machine gun bullets and shellfire to enter enemy trenches and consolidate captured ground. Neuve Chapelle was the beginning of the learning process to find a strategy that would lead to a decisive victory over Germany. It would take the Allied Generals three years of war and bloodshed to find a solution to achieve that overall aim.

By Paul Kendall

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