On 24 March 1915, several days after the failed offensive at Neuve-Chapelle, General Joffre made an official request to his counterpart General French for the British Army to take part in a huge offensive he was planning in Artois at the beginning of May. French agreed without reserve.
The aim of the offensive was to break through the German line north of Arras. The main thrust of the attack was to be made by the 10th French Army on Vimy Ridge and two supporting attacks on the flanks would, it was hoped, secure the heights of Lorette Spur, to the north-west and other high ground to the east of Arras. If everything went according to plan, they should be able to advance into the coal basin.
The British were scheduled to attack the day after the French assault, on a sector of the plain around Neuve-Chapelle which had already been the scene of much fighting in March. The idea was for the British and Indian units to take Aubers Ridge, an almost imperceptible relief in the flat landscape which nevertheless provided the Germans with a good view of the Allied lines, in a pincer attack which would close in from the north and south of Neuve-Chapelle.
The French offensive was, for the first time, preceded by a long bombardment lasting several days. The effect of surprise was abandoned in favour of the bludgeoning that could be inflicted on the German defences by the large-calibre shells. On the other hand, the British remained faithful to the tactic of a brief (in this case lasting forty minutes) but intense bombardment to flatten the barbed wire entanglements, dislocate the German front line and damage the fortified areas of the second line. Aeroplanes were used to guide artillery fire and bomb targets in the enemy's rear, especially the railways. Two tunnels were dug across no man's land, a distance of 100 metres, to plant mines weighing approximately one ton under the German front line.
On the other side the Germans, drawing on the lessons learned in the March attack, considerably strengthened their defences with greater expanses of barbed wire, some being placed in ditches before the front line, and shelters placed every twenty metres; machine guns were set up almost at ground level, behind thick steel plates, in positions which allowed them to fire upon any part of no man's land; and they also deepened their trenches and raised the height of their sand bag parapets.
The French started shelling on 3 May but the weather forced the general staff to postpone the start of the attack, which was scheduled for 7 May. The offensive was eventually launched on 9 May at the same time as the British attack, which was contrary to the initial plan.
The British preliminary bombardment started at 5 a.m., the field artillery pounding the barbed wire with shrapnel shells while the howitzers showered the trenches with large-calibre shells. Half an hour later the British infantry left the trenches. They had to cross a relatively narrow expanse, about 100 metres, but almost immediately they came under heavy machine gun fire and in some places the Indian and Scottish soldiers were cut down as soon as they went over the top. The British front line soon filled with the dead and wounded. Those who set out into no man's land were cut down as they ran or impaled on the barbed wire, thus becoming an easy target for the German marksmen. In the southern sector several groups of soldiers reached the German front line only to be slaughtered or taken prisoner. At six o'clock in the morning the order was given to stop the attack and hundreds of men found themselves stuck in no man's land, unable to advance or retreat, and to make matters worse the German artillery had now roared into action, shelling no man's land and the British front line in equal measure.
Events to the north were unfolding in much the same way although some units did manage to take the German front line in three separate but superficially limited areas. The explosion of the mines at 5.40 a.m. allowed the British to exploit the resulting craters to launch an attack on the heavily-fortified Delangre Farm, which they took. Apart from these isolated successes the enemy's shelling of no man's land and the general confusion which reigned over the battlefield prevented any significant advances. Despite giving the order to relaunch the attack, Lieutenant-General Haig soon learned from his officers on the ground that it was impossible.
Informed of the initial successes of the French on Vimy Ridge, and basing his decision on reports which underestimated British losses, Haig ordered a renewal of the attack south of Neuve-Chapelle. After several delays, resulting from the general confusion and the enemy's fire rendering the transfer of reinforcements difficult, the Allied bombardment started once again at 3.20 p.m. The elite soldiers of the Black Watch, the Royal Highland regiment, went over the top at 3.57 p.m. Some reached the German front line, where they were either killed or captured, and a handful reached the second line before suffering the same fate.
By the evening of 9 May the situation was far from promising for the Allies: the groups of soldiers who had managed to reach the German front line were totally isolated and exposed to enemy fire. The chaos on the roads to the front and the communication trenches was such that any thought of relaunching the attack at sundown was abandoned by Haig.
During the night the soldiers established on the German lines (200 to 300 men in all) undertook a perilous retreat across no man's land.
By the morning of 10 May all hopes of renewing the attack were abandoned because of a lack of shells and, above all, because of the huge numbers of casualties (it took three days to transfer the wounded of 9 May to the field ambulances on the second line). In one single day of fighting the British Army had lost 11,000 men (dead, wounded and lost in action) which was, in relative terms, one of the highest casualty rates of the Great War, in particular for officers.
After the disaster of the Battle of Neuve-Chapelle, Haig concluded that any new attack should be preceded by long periods of methodical shelling from large-calibre guns. All ideas of a surprise offensive were abandoned and for the next two years, until the end of 1917, all the attacks launched against the German lines followed the same pattern and brought little success.
Yves Le Maner
Director of La Coupole
History and Remembrance Centre of Northern France