The Battle of Neuve Chapelle (10–13 March 1915) marks its 102nd anniversary this year. It took place in the Artois region of France (French Flanders). The battle followed the operations that had taken place over the winter months of 1914-15 and was to be the first large scale offensive launched by the British. With more Divisions arriving in France, the British Expeditionary Force was now divided into two armies with Sir Douglas Haig commanding the First Army and Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien the Second Army.
The arrival of these extra troops enabled the British to relieve the French in the Flanders region and created a British line stretching from Langemark (north east of Ypres, Belgium) to Givenchy-lès-la-Bassée in France.
With this growing strength, the French Commander-in-Chief General Joffre believed that the allies should take up a more offensive posture to which the BEF’s Commander Sir John French (pictured left) agreed. Plans were hatched to break through the German lines in the Artois region at Neuve Chapelle and then exploit this breakthrough by advancing on to Aubers Ridge and Lille and recapturing its nearby rail arteries.
The battle was minutely planned and would be the blue print for all coming battles on the Western Front. The Royal Flying Corp took hundreds of aerial photographs from which scale maps were created and distributed to the First Army who would be involved in the coming battle.
They also developed an artillery fire plan so the infantry would know exactly what the artillery was aiming at, when it would begin its bombardment and for how long the bombardment would last. In short the plan was as follows: at 07:30 in the morning on 10 March, the artillery would open fire for duration of 30 minutes smashing the German defenses and thus breaking up the barbed wire. They would then lay down a curtain of explosives behind the German lines in order to stop any reinforcements moving forward.
The artillery bombardment succeeded in destroying much of the German defenses. When it had finished the infantry went over the top. The majority of the troops were Indian soldiers from Bengal; part of Britain’s Indian Empire and formed the Indian Corps which consisted of the 3rd Lahore and 7th Meerut Divisions. These troops surged across ‘No Man’s Land’ towards the German lines.
In many places they were successful in their objectives but in other places they ran into surviving pockets of German troops and consequently suffered terrible casualties. During this attack, Rifleman Gabar Singh Negi who was part of a bombing/bayonet party was awarded the Victoria Cross for reaching the German trenches and driving them back until they were forced to surrender. Unfortunately he was killed in the action and is remembered on the Indian Memorial at Neuve Chapelle.
Reinforcements were sent in and the town of Neuve Chappelle was taken. However as the troops pushed on, the fog of war began to have its effect. Generals began to lose track of just where their troops were. They also lost track of where the enemy were and consequently they could not direct the artillery fire. Without the support from the artillery, the troops could not assault the German positions and so the attack began to lose its momentum.
By 13 March, German forces commanded by Crown Prince Wilhelm (the Kaiser’s son) counter attacked. In this counter attack the Germans suffered many casualties from the British artillery but this used up their available ammunition and so an end was called to the offensive and the objective of reaching Aubers Ridge and Lille was never achieved and would be reattempted later in the year.
What Neuve Chapelle showed was that with a well planned artillery bombardment and detailed planning and preparation, you could cross ‘No Man’s Land’ and break into the Germans defence. However, once there it was difficult, if not impossible, to coordinate the attack and break out on the other side.
What the battle also showed was that ammunition would be required on an incredible scale. The first half hour bombardment of this battle expended more shells than the British Army had fired in the entire Boer War. In one day each British gun had fired 17 days worth of Britain’s factory output of shells. This led to the political ‘Shell Shortage Crisis’ of 1915 and contributed to the fall of the government.
The allies suffered 40,000 casualties in the Battle of Neuve Chapelle. Of these over a quarter were killed and all for the sake of a mere one mile of ground.
Rifleman Tours visits the battlefield of Neuve Chapelle, Aubers Ridge and Fromelles on a regular basis. This visit is included on our Somme Battlefield Tour: Heroism and Horror.
The Indian Memorial which commemorates these brave Empire troops is outstanding and in the centre of it on a sunny day you would believe you are in India. On the outer walls are bullet holes going back to the Second World War when the crossroads here was defended to halt the Germans as the then BEF retreated to Dunkirk.
For more details of our three day battlefield tour – The Somme: Heroism and Horror – click here.
Lest we Forget