In early 1915 the Western Front resembled a tag-team wrestling match. No sooner had the French had jumped out of the ring after the disaster at Champagne, they slapped the hand of the British who took up the baton for the Allies and launched their own offensive at Neuve Chapelle.
The objective handed to the British First Army, led by Field Marshal Douglas Haig, was to take the village of Neuve Chapelle and then gain control of Aubers Ridge; a ridge of higher ground less than a mile to the east of the village that offered a commanding view of the surrounding area and would be an ideal launching pad for an advance towards German held Lille. This was to be the first time the British had launched an attack on their own in this war, and it was about time too. During the previous eight months they had retreated, counter-attacked, marched, dug trenches by the mile and fought a defensive war, now, at last, the British Tommies would be able to give Fritz an absolute hiding. Or at least that was the plan.
This was a new kind of war, a static war of attrition rather than fluid movements in the open that the British Army were more used to. However, Haig and his staff got their head around the issues of planning for a full-on attack quite well. Aerial reconnaissance provided intelligence of the size, position and depth of enemy defences. Meticulous time tables were drawn up for the artillery guns, they even built a light railway to ensure supplies could be brought to the front in a timely manner.
At 7.30am on 10th March, the guns let rip. First off it was 35 minutes of hellfire directly onto the German front line. Haig wanted the bombardment to be much longer, but a shortage of shells forced his hand. However, in those 35 minutes the British guns fired more shells than in the entire South African war of 1899-1902. At 8.05am the guns lifted and the infantry of the British First Army (including a large number of Indian troops) advanced along a 2 mile front. The guns then switched their attack to the village of Neuve Chapelle itself, and the rear of the German lines, in an effort to deter re-enforcements and supplies to the front.
Maybe it was the organisation of the advancing infantry, maybe it was the fact that this part of the front was only lightly defended by the Germans, maybe the short preliminary bombardment didn’t raise the alarm that an attack was imminent. Whatever the reason (and it was probably a mixture of all three mentioned above), what followed next was a rare, rare bird indeed: a genuine and bonafide breakthrough of the enemy lines. By 8.30am Allied troops had captured the village of Neuve Chapelle!
However, it was not all tea and cupcakes. There was a small part of the German line, situated nearest the ridge, which had not been bombarded at all; the guns didn’t get up to the line quick enough to take part in the attack. The wires were untouched, the machine gun placements were not damaged, the troops were still there. The Indian soldiers who advanced on this sector in three successive waves stood no chance. Communication was so bad though, that because no one returned back to their lines in this sector, HQ thought they had succeeded in their objective. The grisly fact was they had all been killed or wounded; the best part of a thousand men cut to pieces in a matter of minutes.
Once the main breakthrough had been achieved the successful attackers succumbed to a number of communication and supply issues that would blight both sides continually until the end of the war. Haig found it difficult, if not impossible, to keep in contact with his field commanders. As a consequence opportunities to advance were missed due to a lack of concrete orders. Many field commanders, inexperienced with this kind of war, hampered by limited or no communications and unwilling to send their units forward without proper support decided to err on the side of caution. Instead of pushing east towards Lille as originally planned, they stopped and consolidated to take a breath and get prepared to meet whatever German counter-attack would appear.
That counter-attack didn’t appear, and on the morning of 11th March, the British attacked once more. This time, however, the Germans were expecting them and the advancing infantry suffered terribly from machine-gun and artillery fire. In many areas the reserve troops could not even get to the front line due to German artillery fire to the rear of the British lines. Despite continued attempts, the British failed to take any more ground. Nonetheless, Haig ordered preparations to be made for a resumed offensive the next morning. Oh joy.
The Germans, however, had their own plan. Having soaked up 2 days of continual British attacks, now it was their turn to have a go. On the morning of 12th March, more than 10,000 German soldiers launched a counter-attack. Unfortunately for the Germans, their attacks were just as dis-organised as the British, and although they recovered some ground, the British had held on to Neuve Chapelle. Just. And at a cost. These three days of fighting had cost Britain 544 officers and 11,108 other ranks killed, missing or wounded. German losses are estimated at 12,000.
Taken from the Kindle e-book – ‘World War One: A Layman’s Guide’ by Scott Addington.