Review of “The battle of Neuve Chapelle”

“The battle of Neuve Chapelle: Britain’s forgotten offensive of 1915”
by Paul Kendall
published by Frontline Books, an imprint of Pen & Sword Books Ltd
ISBN 978 1 47384 718 7
Hardback, 264 pages plus appendices, bibliography, index. Illustrated.
Cover price £25

I have enjoyed Paul Kendall’s previous works on the Battles of the Aisne in 1914, Bullecourt in 1917 and the Zeebrugge Raid in 1918, and look forward to seeing his new book on the Somme. “The battle of Neuve Chapelle” falls some way short of the high standards achieved previously – but I do not think this can be entirely attributed to the author. Throughout the book the reader is confronted with numerous small typographical errors, and any competent editor would have picked up the one or two grammatical errors that I noticed. On page 38 we find that the British 29th Division assembled in France and was placed under orders to go to Salonika – neither of which is true, and which made me very curious as to the editorial attention that the author’s manuscript received. It is a great pity, for behind all of that is an interesting battle study.

The British attack at Neuve Chapelle on 10 March 1915 deserves a fresh study. It was not the first large scale British attack in France: the badly mishandled and costly efforts of mid-December 1914 (part of which was on the ground over which the Neuve Chapelle action was fought) take that place. But it was the first where a concentrated force was deployed, with a specific objective. It has some very interesting aspects, notably the combined British and Indian force that took part; the fact that that force was to a large extent improvised and inexperienced after the punishing losses of 1914; the (for the time) very heavy concentration of firepower that played a vital part in the capture of the village; and the blurred thinking about objectives which not only included the short advance to capture Neuve Chapelle but a vague desire to move onto the Aubers Ridge and even to sweep onto Lille beyond. Paul Kendall’s book covers it all in good detail, including many personal accounts that help bring it all alive. As such, it is of value and worth reading.

The book includes a few maps, but I would have appreciated more. This is a study of a small and localised battle where each farm, lane, stream and trench played a part. Personally I would much rather have one really good map than the selection of photographs that seem to be de rigeur in Pen & Sword productions.

It was only as I approached the end of the book that something else began to dawn on me. There is little by way of a German voice here: the battle is analysed in detail from a British viewpoint but we gain little understanding of the Germans’ anticipation of any attack; their reactions and dispositions during it; and any learning they took from it, except at a pretty high level of abstraction. I might also add the same about the French. They played no direct part in this battle but to a great extent it was encouraged by them and was of importance to their own operations not so far to the south.

Overall, a good if somewhat one-sided battle study and one worth reading if you are prepared to wince a bit at the typos.