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- 1914 - Indians - Neuve-Chapelle

The Battle of Givenchy (18-22 December 1914)

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The French, finding themselves in difficulty at Arras in late 1914, asked the British to launch an offensive to push the German line further north. This request came after a series of British attacks south of Ypres had all been repelled with heavy losses. The strategy for attack was always the same: a brief bombardment followed by a frontal assault by infantry which made little progress against the enemy's lines of barbed wire, trenches and machine gun nests. In fact, British munition reserves were at their lowest levels with just forty rounds allocated to each gun, mostly shrapnel shells which had a limited effect on the fortified positions.

So, in compliance with the French request, General French planned six simultaneous small-scale attacks with most of the burden of the fighting to be borne by the men of the Indian Corps, already severely tested since their arrival in Flanders a few weeks previously. Indeed, the Indian troops had suffered heavy losses in the defence of Ypres and during a series of attacks along the Belgian frontier and La Bassée Canal; and a large number of those who survived were exhausted and suffering terribly from the terrible winter conditions which reigned in the sodden trenches of Flanders, their dismal situation compounded by a lack of warm clothing and adequate food.

The attack began on 19 December at 3.10 a.m. in freezing rain between La Bombe Crossroads, near Neuve-Chapelle, and La Bassée Canal. Setting out from the village of Givenchy-lès-la-Bassée, the Lahore Division succeeded in taking the first two German lines despite coming under heavy machine gun fire and, further to the north, the Garhwal Brigade and the Gurkhas took 300 metres of the opposing line at Festubert; however the enemy was quick to regroup and launched counter-attacks in the same morning, supported by artillery and making great use of hand grenades, a weapon the British had in very short supply. At dawn on 20 December the German artillery began to shell the Indian troops and, later in the morning, a series of mines exploded under the British lines causing much death. Meanwhile the German infantry was moving forward at Festubert, on the point of enveloping Givenchy, and had taken more than 800 British soldiers prisoner. In response to the threat, reinforcements were bused in to relieve the now dislocated Indian Corps.

British losses were high, especially among the Indian units. In addition to the wounds inflicted by German bullets and shells, many of the victims were suffering from frostbite and trench foot.

Lacking clear objectives and sufficient means, the British assaults of December 1914 in French Flanders resulted in heavy losses (4,000 for the BEF compared with 2,000 for the German Army) and absolutely no strategic gain for the Allies. The Indian soldiers were particularly affected by the conditions for which they had not been prepared and, faced with a growing risk of mutiny, the British general staff decided to withdraw them from the Western Front over the coming months.

The many soldiers who lost their lives in no man's land and the water-filled craters in this sector of the front had to be buried and this was one of the reasons for the temporary ceasefire which was observed shortly after the battle: the Christmas Truce.

Yves Le Maner
Director of La Coupole
History and Remembrance Centre of Northern France