9-10 May 1915: the Battle of Aubers. A disastrous attack that cost 11,000 British casualties for no material gain: it was a minor supporting operation to a much larger French attack in an action known as the Second Battle of Artois.
Throughout the winter of 1914-15 the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary) continued offensive operations against Russia. Although they achieved no major or strategic breakthrough there, they determined to stand on the defensive in the west in 1915, pressing forward in the east. Once Russia had been defeated, the full weight of their forces could be deployed against the formidable Western Front (as indeed did happen three years later). The German Supreme Command thus moved forces from the west to the east.
Sensing German intentions, the French High Command resolved on a speedy attack. Commander-in-Chief Joffre planned for three strategic strikes against enemy communications that would disable their ability to defend the large salient that had been punched into French territory in 1914:
Lack of men and munitions for this ambitious strategy meant that these moves could not be undertaken simultaneously, and the Artois attack was given priority. It was this decision that would lead to the British attack at Aubers.
On 24 March 1915, French Commender-in-Chief Joffre enquired of Sir John French whether the BEF would be ready to cooperate in an offensive to take place 5-6 weeks later. Having received a positive reply from the British commander, he issued initial details on 6 April:
In the last days of April, the French Tenth Army, acting in concert with the British First Army, will undertake an important attack north of Arras with a view to piercing the enemy’s line
The tactical objectives are set
Joffre’s tactical objective for the Artois attack was to seize the heights 140 – 132 at Vimy Ridge. The plan was for a principal French attack between Carency and Roclincourt, supported by a flank attack to the north with the immediate objective of capturing the heights of Notre Dame de Lorette, then pushing forward into the Douai plain; and a flank attack to the south aimed at the heights at Points 96 and 93 east of Arras. (The latter being west of Bailleul Sire Berthoult and at Point du Jour). The British assault at Aubers would go in on the day after the main attack.
Detailed operational planning was placed into the hands of Sir Douglas Haig’s First Army. Neither this or the overall strategic plan was notably affected by the German gas attack north of Ypres on 22 April, with the exception of various units of First Army being moved or placed on standby to move to Ypres. Indeed, Allied resolve was strengthened by the launch of the German Gorlice – Tarnow offensive in the east on 1 May and the sinking of the “Lusitania” on 7 May. Plans began to take shape, and units began to move into position from early April. The British attack at Gallipoli was launched on 25 April 1915, opening another front and placing an additional (and growing) demand on already-stretched military resources.
Joffre and the weather adjust the plan
On 2 May, French was informed that the main attack would now take place on 7 May. First Army had five days left to complete their preparations.
Heavy rain on 6 May and dense mist on 7 May caused a French postponement of the main attack; it would now go in on 9 May – and the subsidiary attacks would happen at the same time, not a day later as in accordance with the original strategy. 9 May was a fine, sunny day.
The British tactical plan
To understand the British plan it is necessary to understand the ground. The land in this area is very flat and is intersected by drainage ditches, some of which are much too wide to jump, being ten to fifteen feet across. There was little natural cover for infantry and the various enemy positions were difficult to see and identify. In the winter just past, the trenches here had been continually flooded.
The trench positions were cut at right-angles by Estaires – La Bassée and the Sailly – Fromelles (Rue Delvas) roads, and numerous small lanes and tracks lay behind the lines and across no-man’s land. The Rue du Bois, heading in from Bethune, cut the Estaires road at a junction called Port Arthur: this was an important defended locality in the British front line. The road then continued north through Neuve Chapelle, heading towards Armentières. The Riviere de Laies lay behind British front to the nNorth, but cut across both trench systems between Petillon and Rouges Bancs, then ran roughly parallel behind German front, recrossing the lines but petering out near Port Arthur.
The German front line was between 100 and 500 yards from the British. The thick Bois de Biez lay behind the German front line facing Neuve Chapelle. About a mile-and-a-half from the advanced British positions, further behind the German lines, the land gently inclined up to the ‘Aubers Ridge’ – a feature barely discernible but giving a significant observation point for the enemy looking west over the British front. Beyond the ridge, the country sloped equally gently away towards Lille. The French objective at the summit of Vimy Ridge and the Lorette spur can be seen clearly from this area, over the British right shoulder when facing Bois de Biez from Port Arthur.
First Army planned a pincer attack against German positions to the north and south of Neuve Chapelle.
The Southern attack was to be made in easterly direction by the 1st and Meerut Divisions, on a 2400-yard front between Chocolat Menier Corner and Port Arthur (1st Division would have an attack frontage of 1600 yards; Meerut 800 yards), with the objective Rue du Marais – Lorgies – Ligny le Grand, incorporating La Cliqueterie (a heavily defended German strongpoint). The 2nd Division was moved up into reserve, from the La Bassée canal sector, leaving behind 4th (Guards) Brigade and receiving in exchange the 5th (London) Brigade of the London Division who moved to the canal in their place.
The Northern pincer would be made by 8th Division, moving south-east towards Rouges Bancs, then spreading to capture the line between Fromelles and La Cliqueterie. The 7th Division was to be their reserve, with some units only recently rejoining from having been warned for the Ypres fighting. The northern attack would also be supported by the artillery of the West Riding Division.
A second phase of the offensive, once the Aubers ridge was captured, would be an advance to the Haute Deule Canal some five miles distant. No definite objectives were fixed for the day of attack; units were encouraged to press on as far as possible.
Preparations for the infantry attack
Joffre said that the French attacks would be preceded by a slow, methodical bombardment over several days by heavy artillery – the French armies had abandoned the idea of a short bombardment, trading surprise for weight of shelling. The French fixed definite daily objectives for the attacking troops, which would have the effect of constraining the ability of local leaders to use initiative. They also gave orders to avoid use of reliefs and replacements – the attacks must go right through using only the first wave of infantry and the units in immediate support.
Haig’s First Army, constrained by ammunition and gun supplies but still confident after the recent initial success of Neuve Chapelle, did not adopt the same artillery approach as the French; the infantry would go in after a 40-minute intense bombardment. Ammunition shortage had been a problem since opening stages of the war and was by now particularly acute. There were in total 504 field guns and 121 heavies in First Army area, of which 84 and 48 respectively were obsolete types. Not all of these were available for this offensive. Haig asked to borrow more guns from Second Army but they were committed to the fighting near Ypres. Therefore artillery strength was about the same as that deployed at Neuve Chapelle. The field guns – located behind Rue du Bois some 1600 – 2000 yards from their targets – would sweep away the wire, and the howitzers would concentrate on the German front-line breastworks. The heavier guns of No 1 Heavy Artillery Reserve, arrayed near Vieille Chapelle, would concentrate on the known strong-points behind the front. Arrangements were made to move some artillery forward as soon as the infantry had secured the first positions.
A small mobile force of mounted and cyclist troops, with a section of a mountain battery of artillery, was attached to the two assaulting Brigades in the IV Corps area. “Infantry artillery” – trench mortars and light guns on wagons or armoured cars – were also to be ready to move.
Three squadrons of 1st Wing Royal Flying Corps were attached to First Army to fly defensive patrols for four days before the attack, to deter enemy reconnaissance. During the attack they would switch to an observation role and to bombing enemy rear areas. This would include the area immediately behind the attack, but also important more distant railway junctions and bridges.
173rd Tunnelling Company RE planted two 2000-pound mines under the German front lines in the northern sector. To do this they drove two galleries, 70 yards apart, with tunnels 285 and 330 feet long respectively. Four other galleries, driven towards the enemy from the sector of the 7th Division, became flooded and were abandoned.
The German defenders are ready
The build-up of British forces and activity appeared to go unnoticed by the enemy. However, in the weeks since Neuve Chapelle they had furiously improved the defences in this area: The front-line breastworks were made much broader and deeper (now being some 15 to 20 feet across, and 6 to 7 feet above ground); the wire was thickened into formidable barriers and some lay below ground level in excavations in front of the breastworks. Dug-outs were reinforced and machine-gun posts (the guns firing through steel plates) created every 20 yards or so. The machine-guns were just above ground-level, and swept across no man’s land at knee height. The support and communication trenches were also strengthened, and in places could also be used as fire trenches. German troops opposite the 2nd Brigade shouted across that they were expecting an attack.
Air observation had revealed that the German front line defences at Aubers had been strengthened since the line had been re-established since Neuve Chapelle some 7 weeks before. There was considerable barbed wire defence and the front line was a breastwork, built up mainly of sandbags above shallow fire trenches. Several farms and other places had been strengthened into defended localities. Maps were issued to the assaulting troops, showing the German positions. It was believed that only 6 or 7 German battalions of 13th, 14th and 6th Bavarian Reserve Divisions held the line between Fauquissart and Port Arthur and that there were few reserves in the area. These units had been among those that fraternised with British troops in the same area at Christmas 1914.
British Order of Battle
First Army (Haig)
I Corps (Gough) : 1st and 47th (2nd London) Divisions
IV Corps (Rawlinson) : 7th and 8th Divisions
Indian Corps (Willcocks) : 3rd (Lahore) and 7th (Meerut) Divisions
Countdown to disaster
The French bombardment on Vimy Ridge and Notre Dame de Lorette begins: can be clearly heard from British positions.
9 May: the Southern pincer
4.06am: sunrise and all very quiet on this front.
5.00am: British bombardment opens with field guns firing shrapnel at the German wire and howitzers firing High Explosive shells onto front line. German troops are seen peering above their parapet even while this shelling was going on.
5.30am: British bombardment intensifies, field guns switch to HE and also fire at breastworks. The lead battalions of the two assaulting Brigades of 1st Division go over the top to take up a position only 80 yards from German front. (2nd Brigade has 1/Northants and 2/Royal Sussex in front and 2/KRRC and 1/5th Royal Sussex in immediate support; 3rd Brigade has 2/Royal Munster Fusiliers and 2/Welsh in front, with 1/4th Royal Welsh Fusiliers in support). Heavy machine-gun fire cuts the attackers down even on their own ladders and parapet steps, but men continue to press forward as ordered.
In the area of the Indian Corps, the lead battalions of the Dehra Dun Brigade of the Meerut Division (2/2nd Ghurkas, 1/4th and 1st Seaforth Highlanders) were so badly hit by enemy fire that no men got beyond their own parapet and the front-line and communications trenches were soon filled with dead and wounded men.
5.40am: British bombardment lifts off front lines and advances 600 yards; infantry assault begins. Despite the early losses and enemy fire the three Brigades attempted to advance across No Man’s Land. They were met by intense crossfire from the German machine-guns, which could not be seen in their ground-level and strongly protected emplacements. Whole lines of men were seen to be hit. Few lanes had been cut in the wire and even where men reached it they were forced to bunch, forming good targets for the enemy gunners. The leading battalions suffered very significant losses, particularly among officers and junior leaders. Around 100 men on the Northants and Munsters got into the German front, but all were killed or captured. The advance of the supporting battalions suffered similarly, and by 6.00am the advance had halted, with hundreds of men pinned down in No Man’s Land, unable to advance or fall back.
6.15am: A repeat of the initial bombardment is ordered, with the added difficulty of uncertain locations of the most advanced troops.
7.20am: Major-General Haking (CO, 1st Division) reports failure and asks if he should bring in his last Brigade (1st (Guards)). He offered his opinion that it would not be successful.
7.45am: A further one hour bombardment starts, ordered by Lieut-General Anderson (CO, Meerut Division). Its only impact is to encourage German artillery to reply, bringing heavy shelling down onto British front and support trenches. German fire continued until about 10.30am.
8.00am: First reports reach Haig, but they underestimate losses and problems. Haig also hears of early French successes in Vimy attack; he resolves to renew the effort in the Southern attack, with noon being the new zero
hour. This was subsequently moved when it was learned from I Corps how long it would take to bring supporting units up to replace those that had suffered in the initial attacks. The new attack at 2.40pm would again be preceded by a 40 minute bombardment. The various movements of relief forces were achieved only with much confusion and further losses under renewed enemy shellfire. The time was again moved, to 4.00pm. In the meantime, the German infantry in the Bois de Biez area was reinforced.
3.20pm: Bombardment repeated and seen to be a little more successful, blowing gaps in the wire and in the enemy front-line.
3.45pm: Bareilly Brigade, moving up to relieve the Dehra Dun, loses more than 200 men due to enemy shelling.
3.57pm: The leading companies of the 1/Black Watch of 1st (Guards) Brigade, brought in to replace the shattered 2nd Brigade, went over the top despite the 1/Cameron Highlanders being late to arrive and moved at the double across No Man’s Land. Some reached the German breastwork just as the bombardment lifted; most were however killed or captured in the German firing trench although a small party reached the second position. The two lead companies of the Camerons, coming up on the left of the Black Watch a few minutes later, suffered heavy machine-gun casualties in crossing between the front lines. At approximately the same time, the two fresh battalions of the 3rd Brigade, the 1/Gloucestershire and 1/South Wales Borderers began to advance but were cut down without reaching the enemy. Meerut Division orders Bareilly Brigade to advance, even though it is clear that conditions are unchanged: few men even reached a small ditch 20 yards in front of their own front line, and the Brigade suffered more than 1000 casualties within minutes.
4.35pm: 1st Division orders another 10 minutes shelling but it is seen to have no effect.
4.40pm: Large explosion at German ammunition dump in Herlies, hit by a long-range British heavy shell. Smoke clouds drifting towards British lines caused a gas alarm. Br-Gen. Southey (CO, Bareilly Brigade) reports that further attempts to advance would be useless.
5.00pm: General Haig, hearing of the continued failure of the Southern attack, orders 2nd Division to relieve 1st Division with a view to a bayonet attack at dusk, 8.00pm.
9 May: the Northern pincer
2.30am: all units report that they are in position, having assembled at night.
4.06am: sunrise and all very quiet on this front.
5.00am: British bombardment opens with field guns firing shrapnel at the German wire and howitzers firing High Explosive shells onto front line. Many reports are received that British 4.7-inch shells are falling short, and even on and behind the British front line (Later it is agreed that this is due to faulty ammunition, as well as excessive wear to gun barrels).
5.30am: British bombardment intensifies, field guns switch to HE and also fire at breastworks. Two guns of 104th Battery, XXII Brigade RFA had been brought up into the 24th Brigade front and they now opened fire at point blank range against the enemy breastworks; they blow several gaps, although one of the guns is inaccurate due to the unstable ground on which it is located. The lead battalions of the two assaulting Brigades of 8th Division (24th Brigade has 2/Northants and 2/East Lancashire in front; 25th Brigade has 2/Rifle Brigade, 1/Royal Irish Rifles and 1/13 London Regiment (Kensingtons)) move out into the narrow No Man’s Land (in this area it is only 100-200 yards across). German bayonets can be seen behind their parapet.
5.40am: On the further advance the East Lancs are hit by heavy machine-gun and rifle fire by the time they had progressed thirty yards from their own trench; the Northants, coming up ten minutes later, were similarly hit, but a party got through one of the gaps blown by the field guns, and into the German front trench. The attack of 25th Brigade is much more successful: the wire on the left had been well-cut and the infantry poured through, crossing the almost-undamaged breastworks and into the German fire trenches. They moved onto the first objective (a bend
in the Fromelles road), and the Rifle Brigade bombers extended the trench system they occupied to 250 yards broad. On the blowing of the two mines at 5.40am, the lead companies of the Kensingtons rushed to occupy the
craters, moved forward to capture Delangre Farm, and then formed a defensive flank as ordered.
6.10am: Br-Gen. Oxley (24th) orders the support battalion, 1/Notts & Derbys, to support the attack of the Lancashires, but they are also held up with high losses, at almost unbroken wire. The front and communication trenches are by now very crowded and chaotic; German shelling adds to confusion. By now, the fire across No Man’s Land was so intense that forward movement was all but impossible. The support battalion of the 25th Brigade, the 2/Lincolns, was ordered forward, to cross by the craters; they did so, despite losing many men on the way. Men of the Brigade were at this time seen to be retiring to their front line, having apparently received a shouted order. German prisoners, making their way to the British lines, were mistaken for a counterattack and there was a great deal of confusion. Br-Gen Lowry Cole, CO 25th Brigade, was mortally wounded when standing on the British parapet in an attempt to restore order.
8.30am: the attack had established three small lodgements in the enemy positions, but they were not in contact with each other and were under tremendous pressure. Otherwise the attack had come to a standstill and all movement into or out of the trench system had become impossible. The men in the German positions were cut off.
8.45am and again at 11.45am: Haig orders Rawlinson (CO, IV Corps) to vigorously press home the attack.
1.30pm: A renewed attack (with 2/Queens of 22nd Brigade in support), did not take place as the troops were heavily shelled in the assembly areas and many casualties were suffered even before the original support lines had been reached. Major-General Gough (CO, 7th Division, whose 21st Brigade had now also been ordered forward by Haig) reported that after a personal reconnaissance he was certain that forward movement was at the present time impossible.
5.00pm: General Haig, hearing of the continued failure of the Southern attack and the hold-up after initial success of the Northern attack, orders a bayonet attack at dusk, 8.00pm.
9 May: the evening and night
6.00pm: such chaos in the trench system and on the roads and tracks leading to it that it becomes clear that fresh units will not be ready for the 8pm attack. Haig cancels the attack and rides to Indian Corps HQ at Lestrem, to meet with all Corps commanders to consider the next moves.
7.30pm: the meeting breaks up having decided to renew the attack next day, taking advantage of night to reorganise. Efforts were made throughout the evening to reinforce the small garrisons of the lodgements in the enemy trenches. 26 men of the 2/Northants, of which 10 were wounded, returned to the British front.
2.30am 10 May: the 200 or so surviving Rifle Brigade and Royal Irish Rifles were withdrawn from their position, all efforts to reinforce them having been repulsed.
3.00am 10 May: the last few Kensingtons also returned from their position; all British troops were now out of the German lines. Around this time, First Army HQ, having by now got a good picture of the losses, failures and general conditions, called a Commanders conference for 9.00am, to take place at I Corps HQ on the Locon road, some 1.5 miles from Bethune.
9.00am 10 May: the Army and Corps commanders and staffs in attendance learned that there was insufficient artillery ammunition to continue two attacks. (The Secretary of State for War, Kitchener, had also just ordered a considerable portion of existing stocks to be sent to the Dardanelles); for example there were only some 3,000 18-lbr rounds left, and some of that was way behind the firing positions. They also heard that the 4.7-inch ammunition that had caused problems on IV Corps front was too defective for further use and that the fuzes on 15-inch heavy rounds were also defective and the shells simply did not burst on hitting the wet ground. All further orders for renewing the attack were cancelled at 1.20pm; the views of the conference were transmitted to GHQ. 7th
Division was ordered to move from it’s position north of Neuve Chapelle to the south of it, with a view to strengthening a future offensive there.
British casualties from the 9 May attacks continued to move through the Field Ambulances for at least three days after the attack.
The French attack on 9 May 1915
Attacking at 10.00am – by which time the British effort was a palpable failure – the centre Corps (XXXIII under General Petain) completely overran the German trench system on a 4-mile wide front and pushed more than two miles onto the heights of Vimy Ridge. Joffre’s reserves were too far away to exploit this success, and the infantry began to out-reach the range of its supporting artillery, giving time for a German recovery. The battle soon
returned once more to close combat and entrenched positions. Intense fighting continued for a week, with particularly bitter actions on the Notre Dame de Lorette heights that resulted in the French capture of Carency and Ablain St Nazaire. The French advance did not quite achieve the capture of the crest of Vimy Ridge.
More than 11,000 British casualties were sustained on 9 May 1915, the vast majority within yards of their own front-line trench. Mile for mile, Division for Division, this was one of the highest rates of loss during the entire war.
There is no memorial to the attack at Aubers Ridge.
|British casualties in the Southern pincer on 9 May 1915|
|1st Division: 3,968 of which 160 officers|
|7th (Meerut) Division: 2,629 of which 94 officers|
|47th (2nd London) Division: 79 of which 2 officers|
|2nd Division: 20 of which no officers|
|Worst infantry casualties in the Southern attack, by battalion|
|1/ Northamptonshire||560, of which 17 officers||First wave of 2nd Brigade|
|2/ Royal Sussex||551, of which 14 officers||First wave of 2nd Brigade|
|1/ Seaforth Highlanders||509, of which 21 officers||First wave of Dehra Dun Brigade|
|1/ Black Watch||475, of which 14 officers||First wave of 1st Brigade|
|41st Dogras||411, of which 12 officers||First wave of Bareilly Brigade|
|2/ Royal Munster Fusiliers||398, of which 19 officers||First wave of 3rd Brigade|
|1/ Gloucestershire||262, of which 10 officers||Afternoon attack of 3rd Brigade|
|2/ Welsh||256, of which 11 officers||First wave of 3rd Brigade|
|2/ King’s Royal Rifle Corps||251, of which 11 officers||Support wave of 2nd Brigade|
|1/ Cameron Highlanders||249, of which 9 officers||First wave of 1st Brigade|
|2/ Black Watch||234, of which 8 officers||First wave of Bareilly Brigade|
|1/ South Wales Borderers||233, of which 9 officers||Afternoon attack of 3rd Brigade|
|58th Rifles||232, of which 10 officers||First wave of Bareilly Brigade|
|1/5/ Royal Sussex||202, of which 11 officers||Support wave of 2nd Brigade|
|1/4/ Seaforth Highlanders||175, of which 3 officers||First wave of Dehra Dun Brigade|
|1/4/ Black Watch||174, of which 7 officers||First wave of Bareilly Brigade|
|British casualties in the Northern pincer on 9 May 1915|
|8th Division: 4,682 of which 192 officers|
|49th (West Riding) Division: 94 of which 2 officers|
|7th Division: 25 of which 1 officer|
|Worst infantry casualties in the Northern attack, by battalion|
|2/ Rifle Brigade||654, of which 21 officers||First wave of 24th Brigade|
|1/ Royal Irish Rifles||467, of which 23 officers||First wave of 25th Brigade|
|1/13/ London (Kensington)||436, of which 13 officers||First wave of 25th Brigade|
|2/ Northamptonshire||426, of which 12 officers||First wave of 24th Brigade|
Senior officer casualties
|Col (Temp Brig-Gen) Arthur Lowry Cole, CB DSO||Officer Commanding 25th Brigade||Buried at Le Trou Aid Post Cemetery, Fleurbaix|
|Lt-Col Walter Alexander||Officer Commanding 2nd Yorkshires||Commemorated on Le Touret memorial to the Missing; died of wounds on 14 May 1915|
|Lt-Col Osbert Baker||Officer Commanding 1st Royal Irish Rifles||Commemorated on Ploegsteert memorial to the Missing|
|Lt-Col Herbert Finch||Officer Commanding 1st Royal Berkshires||Commemorated on Le Touret memorial to the Missing|
|Lt-Col Frederick France-Hayhurst||Officer Commanding 1/4th Royal Welsh Fusiliers||Buried at Cabaret Rouge Cemetery, Souchez|
|Temp Lt-Col Victor Rickard||Officer Commanding 1st Royal Munster Fusiliers||Buried at Cabaret Rouge Cemetery, Souchez|
This battle was an unmitigated disaster for the British army. No ground was won and no tactical advantage gained. It is very doubtful if it had the slightest positive effect on assisting the main French attack fifteen miles to the south.
The main operational factors affecting the outcome were:
- Intelligence about the newly-strengthened German positions was not available or given sufficient attention
- No surprise was achieved
- The duration and weight of the British bombardment was wholly insufficient to break the German wire and breastwork defences, or to destroy or suppress the front-line machine-guns
- German artillery and free movement of reserves were insufficiently suppressed
- Trench layout, traffic flows and organisation behind the British front line did not allow for easy movement of reinforcements and casualties
- British artillery equipment and ammunition were in poor condition: the first through over-use, the second through faulty manufacture
- It soon became impossible to tell precisely where British troops were; accurate close-support artillery fire was impossible
The conclusions I have arrived at are:
1. The defences in our front are so carefully and so strongly made, and mutual support with machine-guns is so complete, that in order to demolish them a long methodical bombardment will be necessary by heavy artillery (guns and howitzers) before Infantry are sent forward to attack.
2. To destroy enemy’s ‘material’, 60-pounder guns will be tried, as well as the 15-inch, 9.2-inch and 6-inch siege howitzers. Accurate observations of each shot will be arranged so as to make sure of flattening out the enemy’s ‘strong points’ of support, before the Infantry is launched.
(Haig, Private papers, 11 May 1915)