The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 173rd installment in the series.
March 10-13, 1915: Battle of Neuve Chapelle
The first big British offensive of the war took place at the Battle of Neuve Chapelle from March 10-13, 1915, when British, Indian, and Canadian troops captured the village of the same name, completely destroying it in the process. For these gains – a few miles of French countryside centered on a small patch of rubble – the British suffered a total of around 11,600 casualties, while inflicting around 10,000 on their German foes, in addition to 1,700 Germans taken prisoner. This they claimed as a victory, reflecting the drastic lowering of expectations that accompanied trench warfare.
The battle resulted in part from political and diplomatic tensions between the Allies: while they recognized British defensive prowess at Ypres and Givenchy, the French and Russians argued they were doing the lion’s share of the fighting (in Champagne and Poland, respectively) and demanded the British pull their weight by mounting more offensives of their own. On February 5, 1915, British Expeditionary Force commander Sir John French told his officers that come spring he expected them to return to the attack, calling for constant raids to wear the Germans down through attrition and exhaustion. He also began planning a major offensive to demonstrate the British Army’s ability to undertake large-scale operations.
By early March there were half a million soldiers under British command in France, including Canadian and Indian troops, allowing French to present the forthcoming offensive as an “Imperial” venture, uniting all the patriotic elements of the British Empire. He assigned the task to the British First Army under Sir Douglas Haig, who shared his belief that victory at Neuve Chapelle might clear the way for a campaign to liberate Lille. Furthermore, an advance here might allow them to sever German rail communications to the south, threatening to cut off the entire German salient where it bulged into northern France. However as so often this proved wildly overoptimistic.
Having located a weak spot in the German defenses north of La Bassée and west of Aubers, in early March the British secretly assembled an overwhelming force, ultimately sending 48 British battalions numbering around 40,000 men against just three Westphalian battalions from the German Sixth Army under Bavarian Crown Prince Rupprecht. The attack would begin with the most intense bombardment in history on the morning of March 10, 1915, exceeding even the German onslaughts at Ypres, with over 500 guns of various calibers massed along a front just a few miles long (below, British field artillery in action).
After pulverizing the German trenches the big guns would gradually increase their range to provide a protective “creeping barrage,” behind which the attackers could advance in relative safety. The British employed aerial photography on a large scale for the first time at Neuve Chapelle, precisely mapping out the enemy trench system to guide the bombardment and infantry advance; during the battle British warplanes would also attack enemy communications and rail lines behind the front to prevent the Germans from bringing up reinforcements.
By all accounts the opening bombardment was utterly terrifying. Herbert Stewart, a British supply officer, described the incredible scenes of destruction his diary as hundreds of guns began firing at 7:30am on March 10:
As soon as the range had been accurately secured, a tremendous fire was opened on the village of Neuve Chapelle and the neighbouring trenches occupied by the enemy… Under this hail of flying metal, the village, the neighbouring trenches, and the whole German position selected for attack were blotted from sight under a pall of smoke and dust. The earth shook and the air was filled with the thunderous roar of the exploding shells. To the watching thousands the sight was a terrible one: amidst the clouds of smoke and dust they could see human bodies with earth and rock, portions of houses, and fragments of trench hurting through the air.
Another British soldier echoed Stewart’s account, providing an additional chilling detail:
[It] seemed impossible that any living thing could emerge from the wreckage created by that awful tornado of lyddite [high explosive] and shrapnel. Heads arms and legs and mangled bodies were flying about in horrible confusion; the upper half of a German officer, with the cap thrust down over the distorted face, fell in the front-line British trenches.
A few days later, on March 13, an anonymous British nurse recounted a conversation with wounded soldiers in her own diary, confirming these details: “Some of them who were near enough to see the effect of our bombardment on the enemy's trenches say they saw men, legs, and arms shot into the air. And the noise! – they gasp in telling you about it.”
In many places the shelling destroyed German trenches and sent the remaining defenders fleeing for safety, as hoped. But some German defenses were left more or less intact, and the initial infantry assault at 8:05am had uneven results. Leading the first wave were four battalions from the Indian Meerut Division, which succeeded in crossing no-man’s-land and occupying the German frontline and support trenches in just fifteen minutes, taking prisoner hundreds of stunned defenders, then pressing on to capture Neuve Chapelle itself around 9am (below, Indian soldiers at Neuve Chapelle).
The Indians had achieved a limited, temporary breakthrough at Neuve Chapelle, but the British weren’t able to exploit the tactical victory to achieve a decisive strategic victory – a common refrain in the First World War. Haig ordered a second attack in the northern sector by the British 7th and 8th Divisions, leading to heavy losses on both sides, including more German prisoners (below, Germans surrendering at Neuve Chapelle). Private Montague S. Goodbar of the Cameron Highlanders confided in his diary for March 10: “With the constant rapid fire my rifle steamed like a boiling kettle and became so hot that I could scarcely hold it. During this time I think we managed to bag a good few of the enemy between us. Their parapet was do badly damaged by our high explosives that they stuffed the gaps up with their dead.”
But the Germans rushed reinforcements to this area and eventually managed to reestablish a defensive line along the front, frustrating the British advance to both north and south and so preventing the two attacking forces from closing the pincer around them. In short, although the British has enough troops to achieve an initial breakthrough, they didn’t have enough reserves to continue the offensive by overrunning new German defenses.
Two days later, on March 12, 1915, German Sixth Army commander Crown Prince Rupprecht ordered a counterattack, which for the most part failed to eject the British from their hard-won positions, swiftly fortified with new trenches. Stewart described the bloody outcome of the German assault, led by officers who were the epitome of doomed valor:
A solid mass of men debouched from the trees, led by their officers, two of whom were mounted on horseback and headed the charge with drawn swords, as in the battles of a century ago. Such courage compels admiration, but it is madness in the face modern rifles and machine-guns. A murderous fire met the advancing German infantry, and in a few seconds that column of living men was but a heap of dead or writhing bodies, a sight so appalling as to sicken even the hardened soldiers who had seen eight months of slaughter.
As the battle swept back and forth across the battlefield from March 10-12, new areas suddenly became “no-man’s-land,” forcing both sides to leave wounded soldiers lying out as the battle unfolded, sometimes for days at a time. On March 12 Goodbar wrote: “We proceed to cross the field which was behind the original German trench. What a gruesome sight! Dead and wounded are strewn everywhere, the latter groaning and moaning in a most heartbreaking manner, there are British and Germans mixed up lying side by side, rifles and equipment everywhere.” An Indian officer, Amar Singh, painted a similar picture: “The place was very crowded and there was no end of the wounded which were being brought in on stretchers… There was a terrible confusion… The Germans were shelling the road very hotly… On both sides of the road were lying the dead and the wounded. The groans of the latter were most pitiful.” William Boyd, working with a British field ambulance, described the scene in an improvised field hospital after two days of fighting:
The dressing-station was formerly a school, and every room was so packed with wounded, lying on stretchers on the floor, that it was with the greatest difficulty that we could move about. It was literally almost impossible to put your foot down without treading on a wounded man. The condition of the wounds was indescribable, for many of them were two days old, and during that time the wounded men had simply lain out on the battlefield, the furious fighting rendering the evacuation of casualties an impossibility… The head injuries were the most frightful, for in some cases the greater part of the face was smashed in by shrapnel, while in others the nose, eye, and greater part of the cheek had been torn away, leaving a great, red, bleeding cavity.
As if to symbolize the martyrdom of thousands of dead and wounded soldiers, after the battle the British discovered part of a damaged crucifix in Neuve Chapelle, the remnant of a destroyed church, which became known as “The Christ of the Trenches” (top). Unsurprisingly the incredible artillery barrages had reduced the village itself to rubble (above). And still fighting continued along the whole front, day in and day out. On March 15, 1915 a British volunteer nurse wrote:
Woke up just as we arrived at Bailleul to hear most incessant cannonade going on I ever heard, even at Ypres. The sky is continually lit up with the flashes from the guns – it is a pitch-dark night – and you can hear the roar of the howitzers above the thud-thud of the others… I have a boy of 22 with both legs off. He is dazed and white, and wants shifting very often. Each time you fix him up he says, “That's champion.”