15 June – 9 August 1915: actions in the Spring and Summer of 1915. Localised operations seeking tactical advantage.
After the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, the French high command came to believe that the British could undertake an offensive action, not just fight a dogged defence. The prestige of the British in that operation, which was judged by all to have been a success even though it fell far short of the strategic goal of breaking through to Lille, rose considerably. It led to increased French pressure for the British army, still small and woefully under-gunned, to play an increasing part in offensive warfare. The Battles of Aubers and Festubert in May 1915 came as a result of this pressure, with woeful results.
General situation in the middle of 1915
From the end off the Battles of Ypres and Festubert in May 1915 until the September opening of the Battle of Loos and the French attacks in Champagne, there was no general change in the situation on the Western Front. It was a period of static warfare, where the army suffered average losses of 300 men a day from sniping and shellfire, while they continued to gradually improve and consolidate the trenches. Both sides increased the tempo of underground mine warfare, which was feared greatly by the infantry in the front positions. At the request of French Commander-in-Chief Joffre, on 7-8 June 1915, the British Second Army extended its left to Boesinghe, thus placing it for the first time in complete occupation of the Ypres salient. Late in May, the First Army also extended, going southwards 5 miles from Cuinchy towards Lens. During August a Third Army was formed, taking over a 15-mile front from Curlu to Hébuterne, on the Somme. Further discussions about Allied dispositions and strategy took place at the 1st Inter-Allied Military Conference on 7 July 1915.
The army continued to suffer from a shortage of material, notably heavy artillery and machine guns (although Lewis guns were officially issued from 14 July onward). Sir John French issued general orders to First Army to the effect that operations be limited to ‘small aggressive threats which will not require much ammunition or many troops’. Three New Army Divisions arrived during May: the 9th (Scottish), the 12th (Eastern) and the 14th (Light). Thirteen more were to arrive during the months July to September, including the 2nd Canadian Division. No development of a reserve was possible, the new units serving only to enable the extensions of the line held by the British army.
Army staffs issued new training doctrines in the instructional pamphlets ‘The Training of Divisions for Offensive Action’, and ‘The Training and Employment of Bombers’, amongst others.
The Second Action of Givenchy, 15-16 June 1915
IV Corps (Rawlinson)
51st (Highland) Division
1st Canadian Division
21st Brigade is ordered to attack
Joffre was planning to renew the attack in Artois on 2 June 1915; the British would need to support by making a flank attack near Haisnes or Loos. However the Loos battlefield was dominated from the high ground near Violaines north of the La Bassée Canal. It was decided that IV Corps under Henry Rawlinson would attack on the front between Chapelle St Roch and Rue d’Ouvert on 11 June, with the intention of seizing these heights. The action was postponed as it was learned that the French would not be ready for their attack until the 16 June.
The 7th Division moved into the Givenchy sector shortly after their costly involvement in the Aubers Ridge and Festubert assaults. It proved to be a very difficult line to hold, being subject to constant mining, sniping and trench mortar activity. A decision was taken to make a large-scale attack on the German front between a point East of Givenchy to just South of Rue d’Ouvert, to capture some key points. 21st Brigade was selected to lead the attack, with two battalions in the front wave. On their right, the Canadians were to attack a strong point called ‘Dorchester’ and forming a defensive flank near the Canal; on their left, the 51st (Highland) Division would move on Rue d’Ouvert from the north. To maintain contact between the main thrusts, the 1st Grenadier Guards of 20th Brigade would advance over the flat ground towards the village. After several postponements, the attack was fixed for the evening of 15 June 1915.
A complete and costly failure
The infantry assault was preceded by 48 hours slow bombardment, aimed at destroying trenches and wire; a heavier 12-hour fire would precede the actual attack. Great attention was paid to air co-operation and observation, largely to ensure economy of use of ammunition. The infantry advanced at 5.58pm, just after the miners of the 176th Tunnelling Company RE had blown a 3000-lb mine under the Duck’s Bill position.
The German line in this area was formidable, with very deep trenches and dugouts that the weak British bombardment (not helped by poor observation through long grass and poor light) barely touched. Even before the artillery fire lifted, once the Germans saw the 2nd Yorkshires and 2nd Wiltshires advancing they manned the parapets. Machine gun and rifle fire cut down most of the attacking troops. The attack was a complete failure, despite the enormous bravery and dash of the 21st Brigade. The 2nd Yorks, on the right in front of Givenchy, lost heavily in the crossing of no man’s land: of A Company’s 5 officers and 170 men who attacked, only 40 were not hit. Of B Company, 1 officer and 31 men escaped, of 5 and 180 who went over. Even so, some men of A Coy under 2/Lt. Belcher got into the German front line, but without support could not hold on. Captain Raley and most of his B Coy were hit before they got away from their own parapet. On the left of the Yorks advance, a small party under 2/Lt. Lloyd Jones bombed their way towards the mine crater down a sunken lane, but eventually every one of this party became a casualty. The 2nd Wiltshires did not even get as far as the Yorks, only a few men getting even as far as 50 yards from the German line in front of Chapelle St. Roch. The Canadians and Highlanders suffered similarly.
7th Divisional HQ initially ordered 21st Brigade to renew the attack, with the 2nd Bedfords to strengthen the Wilts and Yorks. However, once it was realised that these battalions were in no condition to continue, they were relieved by the 2nd Royal Scots Fusiliers and Bedfords respectively. The relief took a long time due to congestion in the communication, support and front trenches, and new attack was postponed from 1.30am to 5.30am and then to the afternoon of the 16 June.
If at first you don’t succeed …
The pattern of the second attack was similar. The Canadians would once again go for ‘Dorchester’, the RSF on the Brigade right and the Bedfords on the left. Brigade machine guns at Windy Corner and Le Plantin would give supporting indirect fire. The attack began at 4.45pm, after a thin British barrage throughout the day which ceased two minutes before the infantry attack, giving the Germans plenty of time once again to man the parapet. The results were the same: more than half of the attacking companies of the RSF were down before they even got through their own wire. In one section, five out of thirteen men were hit while still in their own trench. The CO, Major J.H.W.Pollard, called off the attack immediately. The Bedfords did slightly better, some men getting into the crater and inflicted heavy losses on the Germans there. Those would could do so crawled back during the night, and reported that during the attack the Germans had been two or three deep in their front trench, with those at the back acting as loaders for those firing.
The price of the “learning curve”
22nd Brigade relieved the 21st at Givenchy during the night of 17/18 June. The loss of over 1000 officers and men, mostly regulars (many returned from wounds received at Ypres) and ex-regular reservists, was to prove costly both in the effort of assimilating and training new drafts and in subsequent fighting. 21st Brigade had now been over the top three times in four months, following their reconstruction after the devastation of First Ypres only five months before. The burden was falling heavily indeed on the regular army Divisions; the learning curve was proving to be all too expensive.
|Killed or missing
|Units of 21st Brigade
|2nd Royal Scots Fusiliers
|1/4th Cameron Highlanders