38: Second Battle of Artois Pt. 2


The Second Battle of Artois gets moving, will the French and British be successful in their attempt to punch through the lines?



Hello everyone and welcome to history of the great war episode 38. This week a special thanks goes to Lisa for her donation. She says that she often listens to them during road trips with her husband all I can say to that is that I am glad I’m not putting you to sleep. Last week we talked about the plans the French and British were making in May 1915 to go on the attack against the German forces on Vimy and Aubers Ridge in what would come to be called the Second Battle of Artois. I highly suggest that if you didn’t listen to Episode 37 you go back and check it out because this week we are jumping right into the action of the attack as we first check out the French efforts on May 9th before finding out how the British attacks faired. After we check in with the Brits we then go back to Vimy ridge to look at the further French attempts to make headway on the Ridge.

The French preparatory bombardment began at 5:30 on May third. It would go on for a little over 6 days as the guns fired almost non-stop during that time. Joffre and the other French generals thought that this steady bombardment of the German lines would slowly wear it down so that the infantry in the attack would be easily able to punch through. During this time the guns slowly sought out German strongpoints that they ground down with their fire. At 6AM on May 9th, just four hours before the attack, the tempo of the bombardment increased and over that time it became more and more intense. While the intensity of the bombardment increased the target of the attacks also changed. During these last few hours the guns almost exclusively focused the barbed wire entanglements in front of the German trenches and the first two lines of trenches occupied by the Germans. For several days it had been raining but on the morning of May 9th the rain stopped and the weather became almost perfect for the attack, clear skies and sunshine. At the very heart of the attack was the 33rd Corps that was commanded by Petain, yes, Petain again. As I believe I mentioned the last time we were discussing French attacks Petain is one of those generals that will continue to pop up time and time again as the war goes on. The 33rd made up the center of the French effort and was, as such, in a very important position. Petain had arranged his divisions with the Moroccan division on his far right, the 77th division in the center and then the 70th on his left. To help the attackers along two mines had been tunneled out into no man’s land that would be detonated before the attack. There are several instances during the war of this tactic being successful but unfortunately for the men of the 33rd this would not be one of those cases. Despite this problematic start Petain’s men would end up being some of the most successful of the entire attack. The French Foreign Legion led the attack of the Moroccan Division. The French Foreign Legion was, and I guess still is, made up of men from around the globe who had volunteered for service in France in 1914. They would lead the attack on Petain’s right and would be able to capture Hill 140. When they arrived on the hill it became apparent that the 156th Regiment had not been able to capture the crossroads of La Tagette which put the Legion in a situation where they were under a crippling amount of crossfire from the Germans. All that the Legion could do was hold on and make desperate appeals to the rear for reinforcements to be sent forward as soon as possible. Once again the French found that their reinforcements were too far to the rear to make it up to the front lines in a timely manner so they weren’t able to move up to the Legion in time. In what must have been a horrifying moment while the Legion waited they could actually see from the top of the hill that the Germans were massing for a counter attack. There are stories of the Germans even using the city buses from Lille to get men to the front line as soon as possible to launch the attack. The Legion could see these Germans but could not do much about it, it was difficult to communicate back to the artillery and the German artillery was constantly pouring fire on them. When the German attacks did finally come they quickly drove the remaining men off of the hill. During the attack and the subsequent defense the Legion would lose almost 2,000 men, or 50 percent of their strength before the battle. For their successful attack and their heroic defense the 2nd Regiment de March of the Foreign Legion would be awarded the Croix de Guerre. The Croix de Guerre is the highest award that the country of France has for foreign military personnel. It can be awarded to individuals, or entire units in this case, that show great courage on the battlefield and for the Legion it was a great honor, and a pity that so few of them lived to see it.

At the center of Petain’s Corps the 77th Division began the day by trying to make its way up Vimy Ridge in much the same paths as previous French attacks. Amazingly the division actually made it to the top. They advanced for almost 3 miles into the German lines taking the first, then the second, then the third German line. In just an hour the French troops were finally, after months of fighting and thousands of lives, able to reach the top of the ridge and look onto the plain beyond. They had captured thousands of prisoners, a dozen pieces of artillery, and 50 machine guns. This was one of the most successful French attacks since the Marne. All they had to do was capture one more line of German trenches before they could attack the German artillery directly and it was at this moment that the great problem of 1915, and the war, reared its ugly head. Petain was frantically trying to push more troops into the gap to reinforce the leading elements of his attack. This was the only way to keep the attack going, but once again Petain found the men too far from the front. They were 8 kilometers behind the line and try as they might they were unable to reach the front in a timely manner. The ground was broken from the artillery preparation, there were wounded coming back from the front, and also there were just a lot of troops trying to move along the same roads and walkways that were quickly overcrowded. Add to this the confusion of German artillery fire that was actively tring to keep them from reaching the front and a bit of chaos is understandable. Unfortunately for the leading French units the Germans were able to mass troops faster than the French and by the middle of the afternoon they launched their counter attack. The French troops were quickly driven off the top of the ridge and soon lost half of the gains they had made for the day. The 1.5 miles they had lost mattered just from a distance perspective, but more importantly it pushed them off the top of the ridge. They also suffered horrible casualties in the retreat. In A World Undone G.J. Meyers would say “In the end the early success of this assault led to losses so severe that it would have been better for the French if they had been checked at the beginning” While I’m sure the French generals at the time would point to the 1.5 miles gained as a sufficient reward for the attack, overall the attack wasn’t completely successful. Even with it only being partially successful its success would be yet another feather in Petain’s cap as his notoriety with the troops and with French leaders continued to grow seemingly by the day. It would grow even more when compared to the success, or lack their of, of the other French attacks.

On Petain’s right two corps, the 27th and 20th, were attacking against Notre-Dame-De-Lorette and Ablain-Saint-Nazaire. Notre-Dame-De-Lorette was a hill that would be an absolutely perfect location for the French. It had a great view of the lands beyond and would be priceless for any future attacks. To foreshadow a bit how important this particular location was, it is now the location of the largest French military cemetery in the world. This would not be the first, with the previous First Battle of Artois, or the last, with the Third Battle of Artois later in 1915, attempt by the French to take the location. Unfortunately when the French troops started their attack it very quickly became apparent that they would not share in the success of the 33rd Corps to their left. Along most of the front of the 27th and 20th the advance was less than 200 yards, barely enough to take the first line of trenches. The failures in this area came as a huge shock to d’Urbal who believed that it was here that the great chance for success lay. Most of the French strength was concentrated into these particular attacks. The bombardment had not been as effective on the front in this area which meant that there was still extremely heavy machine gun fire from the unbroken German strongpoints in the area that prevented any kind of large scale advance. The 27th Corps wouldn’t make any progress at all in their attacks on the 9th and while the 20th Corps had slightly more success, even getting troops into the town of Neuville on the way to their real objectives. Even when the troops did reach Neuville, the largest advance in this sector of the front, they arrived in such huge disorder and disarray that they couldn’t continue any form of attack and were quickly assailed by German counter attacks. So, just to recap, after the first day of attacks it was only the 33rd Corps which had made any real progress, but the French commanders remained optimistic that further attacks would yield better results.

Over the next several days attacks would continue. However, by the end of the first day of attacks on the ninth the Germans had, for the most part, recovered their composure after the initial shock. General d’Urbal sent reinforcements to the 33rd and 20th Corps and ordered the commanders all along the front to continue the attacks again on the 11th. On the 11th several more large scale attacks were launched against the German positions, but they were all costly failures. This biggest problem for the French was that the Germans were able to quickly mass artillery behind the line faster than the french could so they very rapidly found themselves in a situation where they were outgunned by the Germans all along the line. This put them at a massive disadvantage when trying to attack. This disparity between the two groups of artillery only got worse as time went on and more and more German guns arrived on the scene. On May the 12th d’Urbal met with all of the Corps commanders with the intent of ordering more attacks, but Petain straight up refused to order them. Petain insisted that several key villages be captured before he sent his entire Corps into another atttack. The villages in question were Ablain, Carency, Souché, and Neuville. Petain was able to carry the argument and d’Urbal changed the focus of his next set of attacks to be focused on these four objectives instead of on a wide attack along the entire front. The 33rd would be tasked with captured Carency and Souché while the 20th would be responsible for Neuville and Ablain. In these smaller scale attacks the French were mostly successful. On the 12th Ablain was captured and Carency followed on the 14th. In the process of capturing Carency some of Notre-Dame de Lorette was also captured. Unfortunately Souché remained uncaptured, despite the best efforts of Petain and his men. This meant that the Germans were able to continue to fire on the French troops from their position around the village. Even with the difficulties d’Urbal was now fully bought into the idea that the capture of these 4 villages would mean that his larger attack would be able to continue so after Petain’s attack wound down without Souché in French hands he went to Joffre to request more men. He found Joffre sympathetic and 2 divisions were sent to him, with more promised when they became available. With a brief pause in the French attacks lets head north to find out how the British did during their attack on May 9th.

As we discussed last episode the French had asked the British to join them in the attack and they had eventually agreed. They would be attacking to the north of the French at Vimy Ridge with the objective of maybe taking Aubers Ridge, but more importantly the objective of tying down possible German reinforcements. They would use a short, intense bombardment instead of the long drawn out affair that the French had used, mostly due to lack of ammunition at the front. The bombardment would begin at 5AM on May the 9ths and would continue for just 40 minutes before the infantry went over the top at 540AM. The men who were participating in the attack were from Haig’s first army and what they found when they moved into no man’s land was that the bombardment was almost completely ineffective. Instead of keeping the Germans off balance the bombardment had merely alerted them to the incoming attack without having the power to actually affect them in their trenches and strongpoints. This meant that when the British tried to continue the attack they ran right into a very well prepared defensive network manned by Germans secure in their fortifications, the British formations were shredded. Let’s look at the account of Lionel Sotherby of The Black Watch “The Black Watch including myself charged the German trenches 400 yards away. The whole 15 officers were killed except 4. Of these 4, 3 were wounded & I survived. In places machine guns wiped men out very rapidly…I was on the extreme right with my platoon and we had no one attack on our left, thus we got cross-fire. By the time I reached the German wire I had only 4 or 5 men left with me and we found the wire uncut.” Sotherby was eventually able to find a gap in the wire so that he and the men around him could move forward but by this point there weren’t even close to enough men to execute the attack. So he found what cover he could and waited. “I waited there till 8 P.M. and then being a bit dark I attempted to crawl back. It was rotten and how the snipers missed me is wonderful. On returning I find myself in charge of a Company of 25 men instead of 200. I feel a changed person at present and unable to laugh, or smile, or anything, feeling almost in a dream.” The 2nd Black Watch which Sotherby belonged to suffered 500 casualties during the attack. Sotherby, in his account of the battle, goes onto say that he would like to get his hands on the Germans to give them a little payback, but unfortunately he would be killed nearly 4 and a half months later at the Battle of Loos on September 25. With the failure of the first attacks Haig ordered the attack renewed in the afternoon. The resulting attack at 4PM would have much the same result as the first one, no results at all. During one day of fighting the British had suffered somewhere between 9,500 and 11,500 casualties and they ended the day back in their original trenches. It was from this battle that the following semi-famous quote comes from: General Rawlinson asked Brigadier General Oxley “This is most unsatisfactory, where are the Sherwood Foresters? Where are the East Lancashires on the right?” to which Oxley replies “They are lying out in No Man’s Land, sir, and most of them will never stand again.” This is probably one of those quotes that didn’t exactly happen, has a bit too much of a nice ring to it which leads me to the think the wording was probably altered to make it a bit more memorable, but, as they say, it is the thought that counts. The casualties were tragic, the lack of gains was horrible, but maybe the worst part of the whole ordeal was that the Germans were even able to move troops down from the area to help in the South where the French were attacking. Joffre and Foch could not fail to notice that the British had stopped attacking and so they complained to Sir John French about the British inaction. In response to this message 3 more divisions were moved into the area and more attacks were launched over the course of several days. There were even more casualties in these follow up attacks than there were during the initial day. That is the story of the Battle of Auber’s Ridge, which often gets reduced down to nothing more than a footnote in most large history works. Sometimes it will get turned into a small paragraph that is more a framing device for the quote given above than for actual accounts of the battle. Also, that account from Lionel Sotherby is very popular, of all the sources I used for this episode all of them but one had a Sotherby quote.

Even with the failure of the initial British attacks the French weren’t done yet, when the second round of British attacks got going the French were doing much the same. Foch and d’Urbal met on May 15th to discuss what they were going to do next in the offensive. They both agreed that another large effort should be mounted very soon but the sticking point came back to the two villages of Neuville and Souchez. Foch wanted the next attack launched only after complete and thorough preparation, which included the capture of the two villages that had eluded the French on the previous days of attacking. Foch wanted the preliminary steps of whatever the next attack was to be the capture of the villages as a way to create a secure base of operations for further attacks. Both of the Generals agreed that they would mount smaller more focused attacks against these two objectives over the coming weeks to slowly pry them out of German hands. On May the 20th the first of these attacks was launched. The attack was able to slowly grind forward thanks to the massive supporting artillery fire. On the left of the attack Petain was able to push towards Souchez and Ablain and d’Urbal urged him to just surround the villages and push the attack forward but Petain wanted to take them fully before pushing further into German territory. To accomplish this task Petain planned to concentrate all of the artillery available to him on the villages to grind the German defenders down. When I am talking about these French bombardments and using words like “massive” remember that by this time the Germans actually had more artillery than the French did in the area due to their ability to quickly concentrate it, so while the French were able to have some numerical superiority at specific points in the line they were not able to gain a wide scale advantage. The heaviest of the German artillery advantage fell on the troops to Petain’s right, the 5th Infantry Division commanded by General Charles Mangrin. For 6 days starting on May the 25th the 5th Division slowly pushed forward under crippling German artillery fire and then on June 1st Mangrin launched two days of ferocious attacks against the town of Neuville which were not able to capture the town and instead had to be halted while more French artillery was brought in to support the attack. The next day the attacks resumed with the new advantage in artillery, which focused on the German positions within the town. For three days the fighting continued on the outskirts of Neuville as the French constantly, but very slowly, moved forward. After these 3 days of fighting the French were finally able to capture the main road trough the town but the German troops continued to harass them from cellars and piles of rubble and this slowly sapped the strength of the French units in the town. It would take the troops until June 9th, two full days of fighting, to fight through the town, moving from one rubble pile to the next. By the time the attacks were finally over the French troops had lost 3,500 men, 3 and a half times the number of German casualties. While the fighting drug on day after day in Neuville the main attack had to be constantly postponed but it was finally scheduled to begin on June 16th. This attack wouldn’t be another small attack by a few divisions, instead it would be another attack involving all of the troops in the area preceded by 6 days of artillery bombardment. Joffre gave the 10th Army more divisions to use in the attack and again urged the commanders, from d’Urbal on down, how important it was to keep reserves as close to the front as possible to try and capitalize on a breakthrough. d’Urbal had 20 divisions for this attack, with some of them a bit beat up from the previous fighting, he also had several more divisions in reserve. 1,500 pieces of artillery would support the men in the attack against the 12 German divisions facing them. During the 6 days of artillery fire the French tried to obfuscate the purpose of the artillery barrages by constantly switching targets and not spending too long attacking one specific area. It was hoped that by doing this the Germans wouldn’t be able to exactly determine where the French attack would land, hopefully causing them to concentrate their strength in the wrong location. During the six days the artillery fired something like 500,000 artillery rounds which is 83,000 rounds per day. That is about a shell per second. Right before the infantry were scheduled to attack all of the fire switched onto the German front lines, d’Urbal even delayed the attack a few extra hours just to allow for more time to fire on the German front. The infantry attacked a bit after noon on June 16th and even with all of this preparation along the entire front and so many troops committed they made fewer gains than the much smaller attacks against Neuville the previous week. The French lost 19,000 more men on the 16th alone. d’Urbal ordered the commanders to keep attacking “day and night with the greatest possible energy” but on the 18th Joffre visited Foch’s headquarters and didn’t like what he was hearing about the situation. Joffre would order that the attacks should only be continued in areas where progress was already being made. Less than 24 hours later Foch would halt the attack. Even where gains were made during the attack they often had to be abandoned due to the fact that they were too exposed to enemy fire once the attack stopped. Joffre officially ended the offensive on June 25th.

With the fighting over both sides would now have time to reflect. The battle of Second Artois, much like all of the action of 1915, gets a lot of criticism from historians. The French lost around 100,000 men, the British a further 11,000, and the Germans around 50,000 in the attacks but this doesn’t tell the entire story. Much like in other battles there were secondary French attacks to try and keep the Germans under pressure which resulted in the Second Army losing 10,000 men, the Sixth losing 8,000, and the First Army another 16,000 in attacks which never gained more than a few hundred meters. This brought the total casualties for the attack to around 150,000 for the French. For all of these losses they had gained about 3 kilometers at the point of maximum gains on Vimy Ridge. One of the biggest problems for the French was that d’Urbal, Foch, and Joffre were all convinced that they were so close to victory on May the 9th so they kept beating away believing that it was the next effort that would do it. What it really meant was that the first attack, while successful, alerted the defenders to the importance of moving more troops into the area which would be positioned to stop the follow on attacks. Each attack also required more artillery shells, and between May third and June 19th the French had fired 2 million artillery rounds. Other than the casualty figures the biggest effect that the battle would have was the continued shaking of the French government’s faith in Joffre which would continue the French down the road of relieving Joffre of his command later in the war. Some in the French government would slowly grow more bold in their criticism of the General even though there was still no way to really challenge him directly due to his immense popularity in France. Second Artois would also cause a shift through most of the French high command. Robert Cowley in his book Perspectives of the Great War would say “According to Douglas Porch the Second Battle of Artois started two large shifts in French strategy for the war. The first was that they began to believe that the best way to win was through perfectly choreorgraphed battles that were dictated from a high level. The second was the slow shift in the high command from a belief in the possibility of a breakthrough and into the realization that it may take a slow steady grind of German reserves to finally break through. To quote Porch who is summarizing American military historian Leonard V. Smith “this strategic shift reflected a deeper psychological change that came over the French army, as its soldiers became increasingly reluctant to sacrifice themselves for what they saw as unrealistic goals of their commanders.”” For years the French soldiers had been sold and sold hard on the offensive ideals, and now those ideals weren’t working, then they were told that they just needed one big attack to create a breakthrough that would end the war, but that wasn’t happening either. If the French soldiers were at least beginning to question their commanders it is almost certainly understandable. I think this quote may go a bit too far in trying to tie the events of mid-1915 to the French mutinies that will come about in 1917 but I’m not sure I am qualified to argue with three historians. With that we will be leaving the western front for a bit but when we come back it will be just in time for the Fall 1915 offensives, which will be the largest French attacks of 1915. One of them may end up being called the Third Battle of Artois so I will give you exactly one guess what the objective of the attack will be.