The Battle of Neuve Chapelle

Posted on Monday 9th March 2015

10-13 March 1915
‘The attack which we are about to undertake is of the first importance to the Allied Cause. The Army and the Nation are watching the results, and Sir John French is confident that every individual in the IVth Corps will do his duty and inflict a crushing defeat on the German VIIth Corps which is opposed to us’.
Written note from General Rawlinson, Commanding IV Corps, given to every soldier before Neuve Chapelle.
‘The G.O.C. the Division desires me to convey to you and all ranks under your command his deep appreciation of the splendid work performed by your battalion during the last few days’ hard fighting. For my own part I find it difficult to express adequately my admiration for the way in which you have fought. I mourn with you for our gallant comrades who have fallen, but the splendid cause for which they have fought, and the brave way in which they have died, must always be the greatest comfort to those whom they have left behind, and stimulate them to fresh efforts’.
Message passed after Neuve Chapelle to the 13th Bn London Regiment (‘The Kensingtons’) by Brigadier Lowry-Cole commanding 25th Brigade.

Summary of the Battle
This was the first British-initiated offensive of the war and was prompted by French doubts about British commitment to the conflict. On 10 March 1915 following a massive but short bombardment, General Haig’s 1st Army attacked the village of Neuve Chapelle which was taken on the first day. However, von Falkenhayn’s rapid movement of reserves and a British shortage of ammunition prevented a breakthrough. British casualties were about 13,000, the German 14,000.

A map of the battle area covered during the attack on Neuve Chapelle, including points of interest for those visiting the battlefield area today. A full and detailed itinerary is included in Major and Mrs Holt's guidebook.

opening moves
On 15 February 1900 General French had led a dashing cavalry charge to complete the relief of Kimberley after a 5-month siege by the Boers. Fifteen years later, now commanding the British Expeditionary Force on the continent of Europe, he once again seemed to have in mind a cavalry charge through enemy lines, something which, like the Kimberley affair, he hoped would have great publicity and morale benefits.
By the end of 1914 the trench system behind which each opposing army sheltered was well defined along the Western Front and the prospect of huge casualties from frontal attacks had been signalled by First Ypres. Fertile minds like Winston Churchill were seeking alternatives to mutual mass bludgeoning in Europe as a way of settling the war and by 1915 the Gallipoli alternative was taking shape. The French, however, unlike the British, had the enemy on their soil which concentrated their minds to a much shorter focal length and in January and February they engaged in aggressive and successful operations in Champagne, retaking important ground from the Germans.
The Champagne offensives generated benefits in that large bodies of German troops were diverted from the Eastern Front, but they also had a tactical lesson that was to colour the next four years of warfare. The French had won back territory by a new and sophisticated use of artillery. First they chose a sector to attack where surprise was possible. Then, by massing their artillery, they pounded the enemy front line into oblivion. At a pre-determined hour, the barrage lifted and moved behind the front line to drop between it and the German reserves. Thus reinforcements were prevented, by a curtain of steel, from moving to the front. Meanwhile the French infantry advanced and captured the German front line positions.
At the beginning of March 1915, the Belgians held the line from the North Sea to Dixmuide and the French from Dixmuide to the top of the Ypres Salient. West of Neuve Chapelle were IV Corps under General Rawlinson and the Indian Corps under General Willcocks, both part of the 1st Army. The BEF had expanded to some 18 divisions, three times its original strength of August 1914 and was now divided into two armies. Sensitive to French innuendo that the British were not pulling their weight, the C-in-C decided to mount the first British offensive of the war, an attack with General Haig’s 1st Army. He gave as his reasons for offering ‘a vigorous offensive movement’, ‘the apparent weakness of the enemy in my front... holding as many hostile troops as possible in the western theatre (and)... the need of fostering the offensive spirit in the troops under my command’.
It was decided to attack the German salient at Neuve Chapelle with a view to taking the high ground around Aubers Ridge to the east of the village and of effecting a breakthrough. There were to be two phases: (1) take the village and the line known as ‘Smith-Dorrien trench’ to the east of the village (see Map 7, above); and (2) enlarge the gap in the enemy line and make towards the Aubers Ridge. On 9 March General Haig finished his Special Order for the Day with these words -
To ensure success each one of us must play his part and fight like men for the honour of old England.’ At least half of the fighting, however, was to fall to the Indian Division and not the men of old England.

what happened
At 0730 on 10 March almost 500 guns opened fire on the German lines over a length of 2 miles. Thirty-five minutes later the guns lifted and the iron curtain fell across the village of Neuve Chapelle itself. Simultaneously the Garhwal Brigade, the assault formation of the Indian Corps, ‘swarmed over the parapet and doubling over the intervening space of from 100 to 200 yards reached (except one battalion) its first objective without a check’. Interestingly amongst the heavy artillery available to the 1st Army was an armoured train named ‘Churchill’ and a battery of 9.2 inch howitzers with Holt caterpillar tractors in battle for the first time.
On the northern flank of the salient the assault by 8th Division met with similar success, only the Middlesex being held up just south of the Moated Grange. Complete surprise had been achieved and the village and Smith Dorrien trench were taken. Now was the time for urgency, to move on quickly to Phase 2, but communication between the two Corps commanders was confused, each waiting for the other to act, and it was five hours before General Haig ordered the attack to continue. The Germans had reacted quickly, bringing up reinforcements through thin British artillery fire. It was thin because the front had been widened but mainly because the British did not have enough ammunition to continue the bombardment at an effective rate. The shortage developed into a public outcry known as ‘The Shell Scandal’, which led to the appointment of Lloyd George as Minister of Munitions with the task of sorting things out. One of his actions was to introduce liquor licensing laws in an attempt to reduce absenteeism due to alcohol Even today, therefore, some effects of the battle of Neuve Chapelle remain – and not until 2005 were pubs allowed to stay open 24 hours a day.
The results at the end of 10 March were, however, considerable. A front of 4,100 yards from Port Arthur to just beyond the Moated Grange had been taken and to a depth in places of 1,200 yards. The whole of Neuve Chapelle village had been captured. Little more was thereafter gained. The Germans mounted a counter-attack at dawn on 12 March with 16,000 men against the Indian Brigade and the front of 8th Division, but this failed to make any advance. It did, however, preempt any further offensive action of substance by 1st Army so that on 13 March both sides settled down to consolidate the positions that they held.
The battle was over, but now the British felt themselves to be more substantial than just an adjunct to the French forces, the French had proof that the British were willing to fight, the Germans began to strengthen their lines opposite the British and everyone adopted the destructive artillery barrage as being standard practice for the battles to come.
Of further interest

Major and Mrs Holt founded the first organisation to offer battlefield tours to the general public in the late 1970s. Since the 1990s they have been writing their series of guide books, incorporating all that they have learned from their experiences conducting thousands of people around battlefields. This series, designed to serve as companions for travellers, whether sitting at home or physically visiting the battlefields, includes detailed travel directions, military history, fascinating anecdotes and tourist information. The Holts share the writing of their books equally and conduct all their own research, spending many weeks on the ground as they prepare each new book or update previously published titles.

Battlefield guidebook authors Tonie and Valmai Holt, at the 2014 War and Peace Revival show in Kent.

Layes Brook looking towards the site of the Moulin de Piètre.

Bunker beside the brook.

'To ensure success each one of us must play his part and fight like men for the honour of old England.'

Neuve Chapelle British CWGC Cemetery.

The Neuve Chapelle 'Christ of the Trenches'.

The Moated Grange. This is not the original building (known as Ferme Vanbesien in 1914), though it is on the same site and broadly to the same design. It is the northern end of the attack frontage for 10 March 1915. At the time of the battle it had been a strongpoint in the German line.

Further Reading

Major & Mrs. Holt's Concise Illustrated Battlefield Guide - The Western Front - North
(Paperback - 367 pages)
ISBN: 9781781593974

by Major and Mrs Holt
Only £16.99

Following in their best-selling series of Battlefield Guides this is a companion volume to the Holts' Western Front – South Guide. Between the two they cover the main WW1 Western Front battlefields. This book covers 15 of the most significant battles of the northern area from Nieuwport to just north of The Somme.
Whether travelling on the ground or in the mind, the reader is carefully guided through the battlefields with a mixture of succinct military history, cameo memories and stories of VCs and other personalities, interspersed with references…
Read more at Pen & Sword Books...

Of further interest...