The Battle of Neuve-Chapelle (10-13 March 1915)

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The Battle of Neuve-Chapelle was the first major attack launched by the British Army, recently emerged from the rigours of winter in the trenches and reinforced with fresh troops, since the beginning of the war.

In the first months of 1915 General Joffre, commander-in-chief of the French Army, wanted to raise the number of troops massed on the Western Front in preparation for an offensive to break through the German line but also to relieve the pressure on Russia. Concerned that life in the trenches was having a disastrous effect on troop morale Joffre's British counterpart, General French, readily agreed. Joffre's plan was to reduce the great German salient, which had been in place since October 1914, by attacking it simultaneously in the north, in Artois, and in the south, in Champagne. In Artois the recapture of the railway network which crossed the Douai Plain would inflict a serious setback on the Germans.

However the reorganization of the British force, tied to the relief of troops at Ypres and the preparations for the Dardanelles operation, encouraged General French to launch an independent attack prior to that of the French in the sector of Notre-Dame-de-Lorette. His initial objective was limited: he intended to take the village of Neuve-Chapelle, which formed a German salient in the British line, and if possible to take Aubers Ridge, a modest but nevertheless important observation post overlooking the plain. French also thought it might well be possible to get behind the German front and threaten the defences of nearby Lille.

On 10 March four divisions, comprising 40,000 men, gathered on a sector of the front which was only three kilometres wide. The infantry attack, scheduled for 7.30 a.m., was preceded by heavy but concentrated shelling from 342 guns, guided by reconnaissance planes of the Royal Flying Corps.

For a duration of thirty-five minutes, the bombardment consumed more shells than the British Army used in the whole of the Boer War fifteen years earlier, a clear example of the growing industrialization of the Great War. A subsequent barrage lasting thirty minutes pounded the second lines. In comparative terms, this bombardment was the largest of its kind prior to the major offensives of 1917.

While the British and the Indian Corps advanced rapidly through the lightly-defended village, the Garhwal Rifles suffered heavy losses as they attacked a part of the German line left untouched by the bombardment. After an initial success, in a matter of hours, the British became paralysed by poor communications and a lack of munitions, and their advance ground to a halt. Bringing in reinforcements from Lille, Crown Prince Rupert of Bavaria launched a counter-attack on 12 March. British soldiers attempting to take Aubers Ridge came up against undamaged barbed wire entanglements and their losses were enormous. Fighting ceased on 13 March with British gains limited to an area two kilometres deep and three kilometres wide for a loss of 7,000 British and 4,200 Indian soldiers, either killed or wounded. The Germans suffered similar losses and 1,700 of their soldiers had been taken prisoner. A breakthrough had been made but could not be exploited. This tragic scenario was repeated throughout the front until the spring of 1918.

General French attributed his failed offensive to a lack of shells for the preliminary bombardments. From that moment on, considerable shelling over several days was carried out prior to any attack despite the fact that it removed the element of surprise. Thanks to such a clear broadcast of intent, the Germans were able to send reinforcements in good time to any sector of the front threatened by an Allied offensive.

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

 

Archive pictures

Vue du champ de bataille après l'offensive britannique

[Bild 146-2008-0075] Bundesarchiv / Wikimedia Commons (jpg - 0.07 MB)

Vue du champ de bataille après l'offensive britannique

Carte du front à l'issue de la bataille de Neuve-Chapelle (en grisé, le terrain pris par l'armée britannique)

New York Times 'Current History'/Gutenberg Project/Wiki. Commons (png - 0.06 MB)

Carte du front à l'issue de la bataille de Neuve-Chapelle (en grisé, le terrain pris par l'armée britannique)