32: Neuve Chapelle


The British attack at Neuve Chapelle and the French attack at St. Mihiel.



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Hello everyone and welcome to history of the great war episode 32. This week after, at my count 11 episodes spent in the east and upon the Gallipoli peninsula we make our trip back to the Western Front and the trenches stretching from the channel to Switzerland. We will be covering the western front and special topics for the next several episodes, so get comfortable. If you remember we left the Western Front after the French attacks at Artois and Champagne that began in 1914 and stretched into the first few months of 1915. Today we will begin by looking at the first major British attack of 1915 at Neuve Chapelle that occurred in March. This is interesting in a lot of ways because it was the first major British attack against the 1915 prepared German positions and as such provides the bedrock for the next 3 years of British tactical evolution. During the battle they would learn a lot of lessons that would used by both armies later in the year. We will also be looking at the French attacks against the St. Mihiel salient that occurred in April 1915. These were the follow on attack from the earlier Champagne and Artois battles and would be the precursor to a renewed offensive in Artois that we will get to in about a month. I guess before we dig into the events I should probably give a brief summary of the situation in France and Belgium at this point, 3 months of episodes is a long time. When we left, the Germans had decided that their plan was to be on the defensive in the West for most of 1915 so they had settled back in their defensive trenches, which they were of course constantly improving, and prepared themselves to receive the Allied attacks. The French had dedicated themselves to continuing the attacks of late 1914 and had tried again and again to create a great breakthrough that would penetrate the German lines and start rolling back the front. The British were trying, as fast as possible, to build up the troops and material needed that would allow them to take a larger role on the continent. That is exactly where we catch up with the British commanders.

Sir John French and General Douglas Haig were concerned as spring began creeping into the Western Front. They were concerned that if they didn’t do something, and do it soon, they would permanently take a back seat to the French. They knew that if they wanted to get out of the shadow of the French, they had to assert themselves as an independent power to be reckoned with and the to do this they would need their own battles. They came up with the plan to attack at the village of Neuve-Chapelle which was 20 miles south of Ypres. The British chose this position because they had intelligence, which was 100% correct by the way, that the Germans had thinned out their lines there to send troops east. This would be a trend in several of the battles during 1915, trying to find the spot in the line where maybe, just maybe, the Germans had thinned down a bit too much. Haig, whose British First Army would be used in the attack, was planning a massive artillery barrage, the most concentrated of the war so far. Note the use of the word concentrated, because in this case it is important. This wouldn’t be the largest usage of guns or shells by March 1915 but it represented the highest number of guns per yard of front to be attacked with a gun for every 5 yards of front, 300 guns all told, and 200,000 shells for them to use. These guns would drop a barrage on the German lines right before the infantry jumped out of the trenches and advanced. Their primary task during this time was to cut the barbed wire in front of the German lines, as we discussed before the barbed wire was getting deeper and deeper all along the front but the British weren’t quite sure how to cut it. Was it better to use high explosive shells and just try to blow it up? Or were shrapnel shells capable of just slicing it to bits? These questions will be answered and soon! Regardless, the one thing that wouldn’t work was to send men out into no man’s land with intact wire that had to be cut by men with wire cutters. It was decided that half of the guns would focus on the front lines and half would focus on the wire with a barrage that started 35 minutes before the attack. Once the infantry began moving forward the artillery would seek to create a steel curtain in front of them to ward off counter attacks. If you know much about British infantry tactics in the war you probably have heard the word creeping barrage used. This is a kind of early form of creeping barrage, a simpler form than what would be used later. Even with the large number of shells available Haig knew he would only have enough for a few days of fighting so it was important that if a breakthrough was made it was right in the beginning so that their was ammunition to support further operations. It was hoped that with the artillery preparation and a quick attack, the troops would be able to capture Aubers Ridge. This would allow the British to threaten the major German rail center in the area at Lille. The British pinpointed March 10th for the date on which the attack would begin.

In his book A World Undone G.J. Meyers points out that the ground in the area was often waterlogged during this time of year. This would make it unsuitable for infantry operations, especially when the shell churn started. Shell churn is a phrase I made up to describe the constant dislocation and relocation of soil by shells. The shell holes would create a crater, it might get filled with water, then another shell would hit it or close to it, the water would spread everywhere and the mud would all get churned up again making it more like soup than solid ground. Anyway, the wetness of the area did have one advantage, it was difficult for the Germans to dig appropriate trenches so most of their lines were on the surface with only sandbag barricades to protect them. This made them far more vulnerable to artillery fire. The attack would be carried out by Haig’s First Army and he would utilize the 7th and 8th Divisions as well as the Meerut and Lahore divisions of the Indian Corps. There would be something like 40,000 men in the attack on a frontage of less than 8,000 yards wide. Some quick math says that there were 1.6 men for every foot of front being attacked, so a lot. Against this the Germans had just two divisions. The British would hopefully collapse onto a salient in the German lines and break through then the British would turn and attack the flanks in an attempt to roll open the breach in the lines. Then the reserves would pour through, the cavalry would be let loose, and BOOM Berlin by midsummer. This battle, at least as far as I can tell, involved one of the first concerted and large scale usages of British air preparations on the Western Front. They endeavored to map the entire front with the First Wing of the Royal Flying Corps. They were also hunting down German strongpoints that would have to be dealt with. The photographs and maps produced by the air corps were used to brief officers all the way down to the unit level so that they knew what was expected of them, and perhaps more importantly, what they should expect when the attack began. This preparation was important because speed was the key to the entire plan and when the moment came these officers would have to be able to lead their men without hesitation and without getting lost. Arrangements were also made to move up mountain guns and machine guns as soon as possible after the attack began. The British knew that the Germans would counter attack as soon as possible, and they were preparing for it as well as they could.

At 7:30AM the artillery fire began and for 35 minutes they fired at their maximum rate of fire into the German lines. The Germans were almost completely surprised to find themselves inside an inferno of shells raining down from the heavens. This would actually be one of the few times that the Germans found themselves completely caught off guard when the allies launched an attack during the war. Most of the time they would know from either captured intelligence, obvious build up, or just the extremely long bombardments later in the war. In this case though the infantry got to within a hundred yards of the German lines before they were spotted. When the infantry went over the top just after 8AM they experienced something incredible, they didn’t immediately come under fire and in fact they found themselves almost completely unopposed. Almost all of the defenders except for those at the very flanks of the bombardment were either killed or unable to put up a resistance. Soon they had ripped a hole 1,600 yards wide and 200 yards deep in the German lines. This incorporated not only the first line of trenches but also the second line, which were also almost completely undefended. The artillery fire was moved forward onto the village of Neuve-Chapelle itself while the infantry waited. Lance Corporal William Andrews would say this about the artillery bombardment “The noise almost split our numbed wits. As the shells went over our heads we grew more and more excited. We could not hear each other. We thought that bombardment was winning the war before our eyes. Incredible that the men in the German front line could have escaped. We felt sure we were going to pour through the gap.” Again the bombardment moved forward and again the infantry pushed forward and again they encountered almost no resistance. After pushing through the village they finally found the next set of German lines and captured those as well. It had taken the troops just an hour and a half to accomplish every goal set out for them during the day. Some of the troops had advanced 1,200 yards into enemy territory. This was the moment that the Allies had been waiting for, that they had been dying for, in all of the battles of the last 6 months and it would be one of the few times that this would happen. All they had to do now was get all those reinforcements and reserves that were massing behind the lines and pour them through the gap as soon as possible. Heck, it was nearly time for the cavalry to ride through the gap and win the war. Mobile warfare was back, flanking, encirclements, daring charges, all of it was back on the table. Hell, the war was basically over at this point right? Home by Christmas 1915, right? Right?

Wrong. The battle of Neuve Chapelle is a fine case study on how, even when you get exactly what you want, it isn’t what you need. So lets just run through the problems that the British began, very quickly to run into, first of all the size of the front was just 2,000 yards wide. As more troops began moving into this small space of front it very quickly became apparent that there just wasn’t enough space to move the required men and material forward in a reasonable amount of time. This problem was just exacerbated by the fact that there were still German positions left intact on the flanks of the breach that were able to pour fire on the troops trying to make their way forward. The most dangerous of these positions were the machine guns, and they had been accounted for during the initial bombardment planning. In his book A World Undone G.J. Meyers explains why they were still in action “Another difficulty was that a four-hundred-yard-wide sector at the northern end of the German line had not been shelled according to plan and was still intact when the advance came. Although the guns responsible for bombarding the sector in question had not arrived until the night of March 9 and therefore could not be ready for action the next morning (platforms had to be built, telephone lines installed), nothing was done to assign the sector to other batteries. The result was a pocket of German defenders who, untouched by the bombardment, were able to bring machine-gun fire to bear on the attackers both directly ahead of them and to their south.” These two problems, somewhat unique to the Neuve Chapelle battlefield were combined with a few that would be common during the war. Too many officers had been casualties during the days fighting, resulting in some confusion as subordinates who were naturally less prepared to lead took over. Then there was the communication problem. As the German artillery began to really come online communications kept getting harder and harder. Telephone wires were almost always cut as soon as they were laid down and radios were still very rare on the battlefield. This resulted in the use of runners who were forced to try to run through the battlefield that was alive with shell fragments in an effort to make their reports. This lack of communication meant that commanders in the rear had no real exact idea about what was happening at the front. In To End all War: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion Adam Hochschild says that it took up to 9 hours for information from the front line to filter back to the Corps commanders and for a reply to get back to the front. This is one of the reasons that I think the First World War is so fascinting. This is war on the scale of millions, before wireless communications became so available. It can be difficult to imagine these days with wireless, cell phones, wi-fi, all of which are near ubiquitous. For the most part the communication technology used in 1915 wouldn’t have been out of place on a Napoleonic Battlefield, or for that matter even to Alexander on the field of Guagamela. One of the fallouts of this slow communication was that when the British soldiers at the front quickly got through their script for the day they didn’t know if they should just keep going or if they should follow orders and entrench and hold at their objectives. While this was happening battalion after battalion crowded in the rear of the British lines and tried to move forward in the confusion. The squeeze became just too much to move units forward in good order quick enough to have the desired effect. The fact that the officers were able to manage the chaos at all, with the communication difficulties, has always greatly impressed me. These officers were absolutely amazing at their jobs from the lowest level on up. They were having to make decisions with such responsibility on their soldiers in the heat of combat. In the absence of other orders they correctly defaulted to the previous plan, hold onto the gains at all cost. British Junior officers were stuck trying to get messages back so that their orders, their ironclad orders, could be changed to allow them to take advantage of the situation. While all of this was happening the German were, quite naturally, moving everyone who could hold a gun toward the breach. These men were positioned, as few as they were, to maximum benefit. Every hour more and more small German units arrived from the surrounding areas and they brought with them every machine gun they could get their hands on and they began to dig in, and dig in deep. Even as they dug in, at higher levels of German command, they were already considering a counter attack. These German troops could have been decisively interdicted by British artillery but much like the corps commanders the artillery had only the vaguest idea what was happening. There was some aerial reconnaissance happening but not enough to give positive targets. Also, as the line has moved forward they began to move out of range of the artillery so everything had to be limbered up and moved forward before they could continue firing deep behind the front. By the time the British finally got orders to the front to resume the advance at 6PM, nearly 8 hours after the start of the attack, the Germans had moved enough troops to stop them. The British would attempt to attack for another 3 days but they would never be able to again capture the magic of those first few hours and the Germans kept growing stronger and stronger as the British attacks grew weaker and weaker. Three days later Haig called off the attack with nothing beyond those gains of the first few hours to show for it.

By the time the attack was over the British had lost 11,600 men, and the Germans 3,000 less. After the gains of those first few hours, for the attack to devolve back into trench warfare, must have been heartbreaking. There were many trends of the war that was present in spades at Neuve Chapelle like the fact that again and again and again during the war successful attacks of the first few hours and days were continued for far too long. All of the gains were often made in the first 24 hours, and most of the casualties and no gains would be made after that. There were many lessons learned during this battle though. On the German side they grew more confident in their Army’s ability to respond to attacks by the Allies and to properly hold them back, even when they were outnumbered. This gave Falkenhayn the peace of mind to continue moving troops to the east without fearing that the west would collapse. The British also drew some lessons, like the need for less rigid planning, for reserves to be closer to the line, and for command to be delegated as much as possible to subordinates closer to the front. They also, unfortunately, drew some incorrect conclusions. Instead of the whirlwind, short, barrage they believed they needed more artillery that lasted longer and from here on out the British attacks would be preceded by artillery barrages that were measured in days. This, unfortunately, generally just gave the Germans more time to react. In the end, Neuve Chapelle would be a partially successful attack that would send the British down the wrong branch of military innovation for a part of the war. Some of the lessons would also filter out to the French who would use some of the tactics of Neuve Chapelle later in the year at Artois and Champagne.

Now we will switch over to the French to discuss their offensive against the St. Mihiel salient in March and April. In early February the French headquarters had completed an analysis and found that operations on the St. Mihiel salient could be successful. St. Mihiel was a protrusion of the German lines south of Verdun. The hope in the attack was to cut off the salient or make it untenable so that the Germans would have to withdrawl. Either way, it would make Verdun a safer position to occupy. In hindsight, with knowledge of what comes later, this attack becomes even more important in terms of protecting Verdun from German attack. However, those unknown consequences were in the future. Oh, and of course there was always that “maintain the morale of the country and maintain the initiative of the troops” justification that the French generals loved to use. In Mid-March 1915 Joffre ordered General Dubail to begin preparations for the attack to commence at the end of March. He also wanted Dubail to launch two supplementary attacks at Vauquious near Verdun and then another attack to the South in the Vosges. The attack in the north was the most important because it would protect the soldiers on the left wing of the attack on St. Mihiel. On March 30th the attack would be launched with 4 Corps of the French army to be used. These men were supported by 360 heavy guns, half of the heavy guns possessed by the French army and the attack would be on a front of nearly 50 miles. Unlike at Neuve Chapelle the Germans would be waiting. The security was so bad that the Germans would know exactly when and where the attack was going to launched. Several sources cite French officers discussing the coming attack in Paris and other towns as part of the reason for the security leaks. This meant that when the attacks started, the Germans were as prepared as any army could be.

The first attack began on March the 30th with just 1 french division attacking along the Moselle River. On April 3rd there would be an attack of an entire corps on the German line. The goal of both of these attacks was to draw German attention and reinforcements away from the primary attack that would be launched by 2 Corps on April the 5th. The artillery bombardment on the 5th began at 11AM and went on for 3 hours before the infantry went over the top just after 2PM. As soon as the attack began the troops ran into serious difficulties. The artillery fire hadn’t been concentrated enough to adequately cut the wire in front of the German fortifications which were also mostly left unharmed by the bombardment. These two facts alone brought the attack to a hard stop. General Dubail recognized pretty quickly that these attacks weren’t going to be successful with the available resources so he asked Joffre for reinforcements so that he could continue. In the book Pyrrhic Victory Robert A. Doughty had this to say about Joffre’s response “Recognizing that the French could not achieve the desired results and had lost the advantage of surprise, Joffre ordered Dubail on April 8 to transition to a “methodical but powerful attack, which will permit us to seize terrain where possible and which will maintain the attention of the enemy’s reserves in this region.”” On April 10th the first of these attacks would begin, this time split into 4 separate efforts. Changes were made to how the artillery was preparing the battlefield with far more time and effort spent on trying to get the wire cut in front of the infantry. Even with this better preparation of the wire it really just meant that the German defenders, and more importantly their artillery, was almost completely untouched. The attacks were another costly failure. On April 14th Joffre pulled two corps out of the area, effectively ending the attack.

The French had suffered 65,000 casualties in these attacks and caused Joffre to believe that attacks needed to happen on a wider front to prevent the Germans from concentrating their forces. To do this the French would need more artillery, a lot more, and a lot more ammunition to go with it. The next major French effort would be in Artois and would be supported by over a thousand guns and they would bombard the enemy positions for days. With these lessons learned we will see a continuing escalation in artillery preparation both in terms of the number of artillery pieces and the duration of the bombardment. This will be seen later in the year at Artois, Champagne, Loos, and Artois again before the year is out. This reaction by the commanders of both the French and British would dictate tactics of the armies until after the battle of the Somme in Summer 1916 and was the natural reaction to the trying to fit the idea of a decisive breakthrough into the battlefield prevalent in 1915. One of the problems that all sides were running into, and that this new tactic exacerbated for the British and French, was the lack of artillery shells. We will talk a bit about this problem that was being experienced by all of the belligerents as well as checking in briefly with the economies of the countries involved next episode. The world had never seen war on this scale before, and it was becoming evident that some of the nations weren’t prepared to keep it going. The episode won’t be coming out for 2 more weeks as I will be taking a brief break to celebrate my birthday which is on the 14th. So until the next episode, I hope you have a wonderful few weeks.