The Battle of Neuve Chapelle was a conflict on the Western Front of World War One. The battle was a British offensive in the Artois region of France. The British managed to break through at Neuve-Chapelle but the success could not be exploited. Simultaneously there was a planned French attack at Vimy Ridge on the Artois plateau, to threaten the German Army from the south as the British attacked from the north. The French attack was cancelled when the British were unable to relieve the French 9th Corps, which was intended to take part in the attack. After a costly German failed counterattack, the British consolidated the ground that had already been won and cancelled any further attacks.
Still doubtful of British capacity to undertake an offensive, French General Joseph Joffre’s initial priority for the BEF in 1915 was to get his British allies to accept a greater share of the front line, stretching from the Ypres Salient down to the La Bassée area. This would allow the French to release more troops for their own offensives. Although the BEF was grossly tardy in taking over more of the line, the British commander, Sir John French, proved surprisingly willing to launch a supporting attack in what would ultimately be the Battle of Neuve Chapelle.
Throughout the planning process, Haig adopted a broadly collegiate approach, consulting experts and holding conferences with the commanders and senior staff charged with carrying out the attack. His subordinates and their staff officers were expected to work out the elaborate details, but there is no doubt that Haig provided insightful guidance. Haig had clearly taken note of the French experience in the Champagne battles and was already grappling with many of the fundamental problems of making an assault against entrenched positions.
The Battle of Neuve Chapelle marked the first effective addition of aircraft by the British to the existing mix of infantry, cavalry and artillery. Aerial photographic reconnaissance had advanced rapidly since the beginning of the war and the images produced allowed a photographic map to be produced detailing the German trenches at a scale of 1:8000. There had also been huge advances in artillery observation from the air.
The German situation on the Western Front had worsened after their strategic decision to send substantial forces to join the operations on the Eastern Front against the Russians. Consequently there were only two German divisions left to face the six divisions of the First Army between the La Bassée Canal and Bois Grenier. The German front line formed a salient around Neuve-Chapelle.
The barrage blazed out early in the morning. While half the 18-pounders thrashed the German barbed wire with shrapnel fire, the rest combined with the heavier guns to flay the German trenches. After ten minutes the field artillery switched to creating a barrage line to the east of Neuve-Chapelle to prevent either the escape or reinforcement of the German garrison troops. Many British battalions went almost unscathed. Yet just as everything seemed to be going so well, the offensive began to fall apart. Winkling out the pockets of German resistance proved both difficult to organize and very costly in practice.
The passing minutes turned into hours as the commanders of the Indian Corps and IV Corps struggled to a get a grip on the situation. They were hesitant to order the next advance towards Aubers Ridge until all the original objectives had been secured. But every minute that passed was exploited by the Germans, as they reorganized and moved up their reserves. As the breach torn in their lines measured only 2,000 yards across, they were soon able to plug the gap. Renewed British attacks were made over the next three days but resulted only in severe losses and no significant advances.
Neuve Chapelle also highlighted the intractability of communication, and the consequent difficulty of knowing when and where to commit reserves. Neuve Chapelle confirmed that the biggest constraint on the conduct of land war was the lack of real-time communications. Accordingly, generals could do little to intervene in the immediate decision-making of a battle. The creation of mass armies and the necessity of dispersion in the face of modern firepower meant that the battlefield had extended, while at the same time apparently emptying.
Real success was never likely, given the greenness of almost everyone involved in offensive operations. And there were considerable benefits to the BEF from the experience. The innovations overseen by Haig would establish many of the basic features of British offensives for the rest of the war.