War history: Looking back at the battle of Neuve Chapelle

An illustration of Indian troops charging German positions at Neuve Chapelle in 1915

An illustration of Indian troops charging German positions at Neuve Chapelle in 1915 - Credit: Archant

After three days fighting the British had gained land totalling 2,000 yards wide by 1,200 yards deep at a cost of 7,000 British and 4,000 Indian casualties.’

General Sir John French served as the first Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force, f

General Sir John French served as the first Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force, for the first 18 months of the war - Credit: Archant

Mike Peters, Galloway’s military historian, on the battle of Neuve Chapelle

A century ago, much of the public’s attention was focused on German air and sea raids and the new campaign to wrest control of the Dardanelles from the Ottoman Empire. However, through a tough winter, allied commanders had planned a Western Front offensive intended to seize the initiative from the German armies who had settled into defensive lines well inside France and Belgium.

In early March, 1915, General Sir John French, commander of the British Expeditionary Force, agreed to a plan put forward by General Joseph Joffre, commander of the French army.

The British part in the joint attack was centred on the Artois region of France. The BEF was asked to capture the low-lying Aubers Ridge at Neuve Chapelle.

Over the winter the BEF had been reinforced by fresh British and Indian troops. The British had consolidated their positions and now held a well-defined line from Givenchy-lès-la-Bassée in France north to Langemarck in Belgium.

The plan was ambitious in scope. It was intended to punch through the German lines, create a gap, and then exploit the resulting collapse in the German defences, overrun the Aubers Ridge and possibly drive into the German lines as far as Lille.

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While this was happening, the French Tenth Army were to assault the daunting Vimy Ridge on the Artois plateau. If successful, they would then threaten the road, rail and canal junctions at La Bassée from the south, at the same time as the British pushed in from the north.

Allied planners predicted that an advance of 10-15 miles would sever the roads and railways used by the Germans to supply troops in the Noyon Salient, from Arras south to Rheims. However, the grand plan began to unravel when the French part of the offensive was cancelled.

This was due to the British being unable to relieve the much-needed troops of the French IX Corps north of Ypres so they could move south to join the French attack. As a consequence, the French Tenth Army contribution was reduced to heavy artillery support.

The British part of the plan was still considered viable and, after months in defence, the BEF were keen to launch their first major offensive of the war.

Preparations were extensive and detailed. In spite of poor weather and reduced visibility the Royal Flying Corps flew hundreds of reconnaissance missions that produced photographs of the German defences. The Royal Engineers used these photographic images to produce detailed maps covering the German defences to a depth of 1,500 yards (1,400m).

This was considered innovative at the time and the information was put to good use; 1,500 copies of these maps were distributed to each corps.

The attack began on the morning of March 10. Artillery bombarded German frontline positions for 35 minutes before lifting and shifting fire onto the village itself and German reserve positions.

The weight of artillery fire concentrated per yard that morning was not surpassed until the huge battles of 1917.

The barrage was witnessed by Captain WG Bagot-Chester MC of the 2/3rd Ghurka Rifles: “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.”

As intended, the planned element of surprise and an early break-through were achieved and the German defenders were stunned by the ferocity of the attack.

In spite of this early success, problems soon began to develop, most notably a breakdown in communications between the headquarters and their attacking troops. Telephone cables were vulnerable to German artillery and British shells that were falling short of their targets.

This also prevented the passage of information between the advancing troops and the artillery behind them. This would prove the undoing of the best-laid plans of the BEF.

Unmolested by accurate artillery, the Germans were able to rush reinforcements forward and establish a new defensive line. The British consequently lost momentum and despite renewed attacks failed to break through the new German line.

The Germans launched a large counter-attack using 16,000 troops on March 12. The BEF held their line and retained Neuve Chappelle, but the initiative was lost and Haig called off further attacks by the First Army. An acute shortage of artillery ammunition made a major attack impossible.

Although the grand objectives of the plan had not been realised, the BEF learned many lessons. In addition, the French had watched the performance of the BEF with interest, as had the Germans. As a result, the Germans responded by strengthening the defences opposite the British and increasing the number of troops in the area.

The French became cautiously optimistic that British forces might be reliable in offensive operations. However, after three days’ fighting the British had gained land from the Germans totalling 2,000 yards wide by 1,200 yards deep at a cost of 7,000 British and 4,000 Indian casualties.

• If you would like to know more about the battle of Neuve Chapelle, take a look at the Neuve Chapelle Centenary lecture and study day being held at UCS Ipswich on March 28. There are also places available on a range of Galloway day excursions with Mike Peters to the Somme battlefields, the Ypres salient, Arras and - for those interested in the Second World War - a Dunkirk 75th anniversary tour.

There are also seats available on a four-day guided tour of the Western Front travelling on May 1. Details are available at www.travel-galloway.com or visit a Galloway Travel Centre. Y

ou can also follow a battlefields feed on Twitter @GallowayBattles or find battlefield tour reports on Galloway’s Facebook page.

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