10 – 13 March 1915: the Battle of Neuve Chapelle. British First Army mounts first offensive on large scale: costly in terms of casualties but results in capture of Neuve Chapelle. Localised operations continue afterwards.
Neuve Chapelle was the first large scale organised attack undertaken by the British Army during the war. It followed the miserable winter operations of 1914-15. More Divisions had now arrived in France and the British Expeditionary Force was now split into two Armies. Neuve Chapelle was undertaken by Sir Douglas Haig’s First Army, while subsequent actions were fought by Sir Herbert Smith-Dorrien’s Second Army.
Order of battle
First Army (Haig):
IV Corps (Rawlinson): 7th and 8th Divisions
Indian Corps (Willcocks): 3rd (Lahore) and 7th (Meerut) Divisions
The British attack at French suggestion
French Commander-in-Chief General Joffre considered it vital that the Allied forces should take every advantage of their growing numbers and strength on the Western Front, both to relieve German pressure on Russia and if possible break through in France. British commander Sir John French agreed and pressed the BEF to adopt an offensive posture after the months of defence in sodden trenches. Joffre planned to reduce the great bulge into France punched by the German advance in 1914, by attacking at the extreme points in Artois and the Champagne. In particular, if the lateral railways in the plain of Douai could be recaptured, the Germans would be forced to evacuate large areas of the ground they had gained. This belief formed the plan that created most of the 1915 actions in the British sector. The attack at Neuve Chapelle was an entirely British affair – the French saying that until extra British divisions could relieve them at Ypres, they had insufficient troops in the area to either extend of support the action.
The point of attack is selected
Neuve Chapelle village lies on the road between Bethune, Fleurbaix and Armentieres, near its junction with the Estaires – La Bassee road. The front lines ran parallel with the Bethune-Armentieres road, a little way to the east of the village. Behind the German line is the Bois de Biez. The ground here is flat and cut by many small drainage ditches. A mile ahead of the British was a long ridge – Aubers Ridge – barely 20 feet higher than the surrounding area but giving an observation advantage. Some 25km to the south, this flat area is overlooked by the heights at Vimy Ridge. The German lines in the immediate vicinity were very lightly defended. The night before the attack was wet, with light snow, which turned to damp mist on 10 March.
The attack goes in – succeeds at first – gets bogged down
The attack was undertaken by Sir Douglas Haig’s First Army, with Rawlinson’s IV Corps on the left and Willcock’s Indian Corps on the right, squeezing out a German salient that included the village itself. The battle opened with a 35 minute bombardment of the front line, then 30 minutes on the village and reserve positions. The bombardment, for weight of shell fired per yard of enemy front, was the heaviest that would be fired until 1917.
At 7.30am the artillery bombardment commenced, and never since history has there been such a one. You couldn’t hear yourself speak for the noise. It was a continual rattle and roar. We lay very low in our trenches, as several of our guns were firing short. Captain W.G. Bagot-Chester MC, 2/3rd Ghurka Rifles, Gharwal Brigade, Meerut Division
Three infantry brigades were ordered to advance quickly as soon as the barrage lifted from the front line at 8.05am. The Gharwal Brigade of the Indian Corps advanced successfully, with the exception of the 1/39th Gharwal Rifles on the extreme right that went astray and plunged into defences untouched by the bombardment, suffering large losses. The 25th and 23rd Brigades of the 8th Division made good progress against the village. There were delays in sending further orders and reinforcements forward, but by nightfall the village had been captured, and the advanced units were in places as far forward as the Layes brook. During the night the Germans reinforced their second line in front of the Bois de Biez, and all further attempts over the next few days brought little material success.
The British losses in the four attacking Divisions were 544 officers and 11108 other ranks killed, wounded and missing. German losses are estimated at a similar figure of 12000, which included 1687 prisoners.
Losses to British senior officers
Lt-Col Wilfred Bliss, OC 2nd Scottish Rifles. Killed in action 10 March 1915. Buried at Browns Road Cemetery, Festubert.
Lt-Col Laurence Fisher-Rowe, OC 1st Grenadier Guards. Died of wounds 12 March 1915. Buried at Estaires
Lt-Col George Laurie, OC 1st Royal Irish Rifles. Died of wounds 12 March 1915. Buried at Pont du Hem Cemetery, La Gorgue.
Lt-Col Henry Uniacke, OC 2nd Gordon Highlanders. Died of wounds 13 March 1915. Buried at Estaires Communal Cemetery.
Lt-Col Ernest Wodehouse, OC 1st Worcesters. Killed in action at uncertain date 10-13 March 1915. Has no known grave, but is commemorated at the Le Touret Memorial to the Missing.
Lt-Col George McAndrew, OC 2nd Lincolns. Killed in action 14 March 1915. Buried at Rue-Petillon Cemetery, Fleurbaix.
Lt-Col Colin McLean, OC 6th Gordon Highlanders. Died of wounds 13 March 1915. Buried at Pont du Hem Cemetery, La Gorgue.
Neuve Chapelle was the first planned British offensive of the war. It demonstrated that it was quite possible to break into the enemy positions – but also showed that this kind of success was not easily turned into breaking through them. The main lessons of Neuve Chapelle were that the artillery bombardment was too light to suppress the enemy defences; there were too few good artillery observation points; the reserves were too few to follow up success quickly; command communications took too long and the means of communicating were too vulnerable. One important lesson was perhaps not fully understood: the sheer weight of bombardment was a telling factor. Similar efforts in 1915 and 1916 would fall far short of its destructive power.
Subsequent to this battle
> the action of St Eloi, 14-15 March 1915
Order of battle:
Second Army (Smith-Dorrien):
V Corps: (Plumer): 27th Division
> the capture of Hill 60, 17-22 April 1915
Order of battle:
Second Army (Smith-Dorrien):
V Corps: (Plumer): 5th Division