Battle of Neuve Chapelle
First major British offensive of the Great War
10 - 13 March 1915
author Paul Boșcu, April 2018
At the battle of Neuve Chapelle the British mounted an offensive against the German in the Artois region of France. Despite some initial gains, the success could not be exploited because of the Germans reinforcement of their flanks and the severe lack of communications between the British front line units and their HQ.
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.

The French had gained a poor opinion of the British Expeditionary Force during the 1914 campaign, only alleviated by its late-flowering demonstration of determination during the First Battle of Ypres. The Battle of Neuve Chapelle, the first major BEF attack on German entrenched positions, would be conducted by the First Army, composed of the IV Corps and Indian Corps, under the command of General Sir Douglas Haig.

As the artillery only had sufficient ammunition for three or four days of serious operations, contingency plans were also prepared for taking up defensive positions, depending on the degree of success of the whole operation.

The BEF, after a wretched winter in the trenches, was in no state to support the French offensives until the early spring of 1915. However, knowing that the War Council in London was considering operations in the Dardanelles and Balkans, its senior commanders feared that unless the BEF made a positive contribution soon, resources might be diverted away from the Western Front.

The appointment of Lieutenant-General Sir William Robertson as the BEF Chief of Staff also brought a more robust approach to the work of General Headquarters (GHQ). A plan was approved for an attack on a narrow front in Flanders. The aim was to eliminate the German salient around Neuve-Chapelle, secure Aubers Ridge and threaten Lille, an important road and rail junction.

Neuve Chapelle was launched partly because Sir John French was unable to comply with General Joseph Joffre's request that the BEF assist the preparation of the coming Artois offensive by taking over more of the French line, and partly because the Field Marshal was anxious to restore his army's reputation, damaged in French eyes by its failure to win ground during the December fighting.

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.

It is well worth examining the stages in which the different components of the BEF were added to the plans of the generals in their early attempts to crack the problem of a successful offensive. The first part was obvious: infantry were ever-present. The tactics were essentially those of fire and movement, an approach frequently decried as old-fashioned, with scornful reference to ‘Boer War tactics’. Yet what else could it have been based on? It was far too soon to properly digest the lessons of 1914.

The role of cavalry had been deeply controversial before the war. A strange dispute arose between those promulgating pure cavalry reliant on shock and awe and those in favor of mounted infantry. Although the cavalry had been invaluable in 1914 both for reconnaissance in open warfare and to plug gaps in an emergency, afterwards they became very much an afterthought – a force to be used when the battle was all but done, to try to maximize the spoils of victory. In the absence of any other fast moving strike force, it was the cavalry or nothing when it came to rapid exploitation.

The Royal Artillery had gone to war with little grasp of its role in combat. It was thought the gunners’ task was to shower the opposing infantry with shrapnel shells spraying out deadly steel balls. When batteries were deployed in a defensive role in support of the infantry, it was not yet understood that this did not mean that the actual guns had to be sited close to the infantry their shells were defending. Positioned within a few hundred yards of the infantry, many gunners were soon dispatched by the German artillery or infantry.

When the British artillery guns were covering an attack there was also no concept of suppressing the ability of the German infantry and artillery to fire on British troops while they were vulnerable in No Man’s Land; early in the war it was destruction or nothing – yet there was a shortage of the high explosive shells that would make destruction feasible. And of course the Royal Artillery was simply too small: it lacked the thousands of guns, the trained gunners, the techniques, the tactical sophistication and the almost unlimited supplies of munitions necessary to dominate the modern battlefield. It would take years to remedy these stark deficiencies.

Haig’s overall plans called for converging attacks by IV Corps, commanded by Lieutenant General Sir Henry Rawlinson, and the Indian Corps, commanded by Lieutenant General Sir James Willcocks, supported by massed artillery, to seize the village before taking up defensive positions. Success would trigger further attacks on either side of the breakthrough intended to widen the gap and then push toward the Aubers Ridge. This in turn offered the possibility of disrupting German communications to Lille.

The dispatch of the Regular 29th Division to the Dardanelles prevented the BEF from relieving the French IX Corps at Ypres and precluded a simultaneous French attack in Artois. Sir John French decided that the BEF would carry on regardless. The British Commander in Chief was determined to dispel the prevailing view among his French allies that the BEF was incapable of launching an effective offensive action.

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.

In his notes we see the surreptitious registering of artillery, interest in the surprise deployment of massed mortars, recognition of the problems posed by barbed wire, the care taken over arrangements for bringing up attacking troops, the primary importance given to locating German machine gun positions and an eye to the possibilities of rapidly deploying forward support weapons to assist in consolidation.

Haig also paid much consideration to the planning of the infantry assault. Officers were carefully briefed with both aerial photographs and sketch maps so that they would know where they were and what lay ahead of them once they had broken into the German lines. Painstaking preparations were also undertaken to improve the existing communication trenches and dig specially constructed assembly trenches where the troops could form up under cover.

Collectively his staff would devote much of their time to details of the artillery bombardment which lay at the heart of Haig’s plans. The emphasis was placed on destroying the shallow German trenches which, due to the raised water-table in the area, had to be augmented by sandbag barricades. The idea was to smash them down, killing the defending garrison and destroying any machine guns; after which a defensive curtain of shells would crash down to prevent any German reinforcements moving forward. To meet these demands, most of the British batteries on the Western Front would have to be concentrated at Neuve-Chapelle.

A fire programme was drawn up for every gun, denoting targets, the timings of switches in target and the number of rounds to be fired. It seemed complex at the time, but this was merely the start of a process that would grow out of all recognition. This was the future.

When the moment of attack came, Haig required his men to advance as quickly as possible to secure maximum benefit to the chaos and panic engendered in the German ranks by the bombardment. Arrangements were also in place to rapidly push forward both machine guns and mountain guns to help support the infantry as they consolidated their anticipated gains. Attention was also paid to improving telephone lines to allow the generals to follow what was going on.

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.

Indirect fire was all very well, but there had to be someone who knew where the target was in order to correct the range and direction as necessary. Shooting ‘from the map’ required far more accurate maps and survey techniques than were available in 1915. Guessing was useless and nothing more than a waste of shells. The great innovation was to use aircraft carrying wireless transmitters which allowed correcting messages to be sent directly to the gun batteries using specially lettered and numbered squared maps with a simple clock code to indicate the relative position of the shells as they fell around the target.

These first steps established a close association between Haig and Trenchard that would endure for the whole war, and indeed defined the relationship between the BEF and the RFC as a whole. From this moment onward, air operations would be fundamental to every major offensive. Reconnaissance and artillery observation became the prime purpose of RFC operations. Soon there were hundreds of the corps aircraft engaged on these unglamorous but crucial missions.

Very early on in the planning process for Neuve Chapelle, Haig brought in Lieutenant Colonel Hugh Trenchard, commander of First Wing, Royal Flying Corps (RFC) for a briefing meeting. There is no doubt that Trenchard was flattered to be granted such an audience: ‘This was the first time I had ever seen Haig. I was very nervous beforehand as I had always heard that he was very reserved, austere, severe and that he did not believe a great deal in air. He ordered me to go round to his HQ about five o’clock in the evening and asked me about the use of aircraft in battle. I tried to explain what I thought they would do in future besides reconnaissance work, how our machines would have to fight in the air against German machines and how we should have to develop machine guns and bombs. He was interested. Then he said he was going to tell me something that only three or four people in the world yet knew; in March, somewhere in the vicinity of Merville and Neuve-Chapelle, we were to launch an attack on the Germans. I was not to tell anybody. He asked: ‘What will you be able to do?’ I explained rather badly about artillery observation, reporting to gun batteries by Morse and signal lamps, and of our early efforts to get wireless going. On the map I showed him the position of my squadrons and said what their several tasks could be. When I’d finished he said: ‘Well, Trenchard, I shall expect you to tell me before the attack whether you can fly, because on your being able to observe for the artillery, and carry out reconnaissance, the battle will partly depend. If you can’t fly because of the weather, I shall probably put off the attack.’

Ideas of bombers engaging in interdiction attacks to wreck German communications pinch points were nothing but fantasies. Aircraft in 1915 could not carry a sufficient bomb payload to do significant damage and, as their bomb-aimers were still relatively inaccurate, they rarely hit their targets anyway. In essence, the RFC was the handmaiden of the Royal Artillery.

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 bombardment, which opened in the morning of the attack, took the Germans by complete surprise. That was quite an achievement, rarely to be repeated. The defenders, belonging to two infantry regiments and a Jäger battalion, about one-seventh in strength to their assailants, were overwhelmed.

General Erich von Falkenhayn's tactical instruction had laid down that, in the event of an enemy break-in, the flanks of the gap were to be held and immediately reinforced, while reserves were to hurry forward and fill the hole. During the battle, that was precisely what happened.

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 waiting infantry watched, stunned at the artillery barrage: ‘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. Shots from the 18-pounders were screaming not far over our heads, and much higher up, higher than the highest mountain of Europe, high explosives from the 15-inch howitzers were rushing like express trains. After a while we could trace the different sounds. There was no difficulty in making out the German trenches. They had become long clouds of smoke and dust, flashing continuously with shell bursts, and with enormous masses of trench material and bodies sailing high above the smoke cloud. The purely physical effect on us was one of extreme exhilaration. We could have laughed and cried with excitement. 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.’ (Lance Corporal William Andrews, 4th Black Watch)

It is tempting to dwell on the dramatic stories of failure rather than the rather more mundane accounts of success, and this can skew our vision of the real progress that was made. It had been demonstrated that, following these new tactics, the British tactics could break into the German lines. Five of the eight assault battalions gained their objectives with minimal losses to take Neuve-Chapelle and the flooded remnants of the Smith-Dorrien Line.

Many of the troops were in a state of absolute confusion. Unused as they were to the headlong stresses of combat, it was inevitable that many were incapable of thinking clearly. Although the junior officers had been well briefed, severe casualties meant that in many instances NCOs were left in command with little clue as to what they were meant to be doing. Delays multiplied as the communications fell apart under German shellfire, despite the best efforts to bury the telephone lines.

On the day of the assault, the surprised German defenders were numbed by the hurricane bombardment. The attacking brigades of the Indian Corps and Rawlinson's IV Corps swiftly took the front trenches. Thereafter delays on the flanks caused congestion in the center, and German strong points also held up the advance, robbing the attack of its impetus.

The British plan stipulated that, after the first objective inside the German wire was taken, the infantry was to pause while the artillery shelled the ruins of Neuve-Chapelle village in front of them. The intention was to disable any remaining defenders waiting there. In fact there were none. Those that had escaped the initial bombardment were hurrying rearward toward the strong points which had been built precisely to check such a break-in as the British had now made. After this second bombardment the British followed fast, into open country beyond the bombardment zone.

After the British breakthrough into open country, orders now required that they should wait for a second time. The commander of the battalion in the center, 2nd Rifle Brigade, managed to send back a message requesting permission to disregard the order and continue the advance. An answer was returned from brigade headquarters speedily enough to affect the situation, wholly for the worse. Permission to move forward was refused. Now the Germans were recovering their wits. During the delay the Germans hastily organized their defence.

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.

By the time the battle was over, the First Army had suffered 11,652 casualties. Neuve Chapelle was a failure in attaining the declared objectives of Aubers Ridge: the capture of the battered remnants of the village of Neuve-Chapelle and the straightening out of a minor salient were surely not worth such a cost.

British and Indian troops had seized the German defences on a frontage of 4,000 yards, penetrated to a maximum depth of 1,200 yards, captured Neuve-Chapelle and flattened the salient west of the village. But they could not exploit their early gains. Haig therefore suspended the attack.

The local German commanders, junior but determined and well-trained officers, were hurrying reserves to the flanks by bicycle or on foot. By contrast – and here the functional contribution to failure was at work – the British junior officers were passing their observations of the local situation, as the plan required, back up the chain of command so that authority could be granted for any alteration of the all-defining plan they requested. Behind the battle zone, telephone lines sped up communications but it was still painfully, indeed lethally, slow.

Dark was drawing in and so were the German reserves. The flanks of the break-in had been secured before midday. By nightfall fresh German troops, hurried forward from battalions in rearward support, were filling the open gap and bending their flanks forward to join up with the positions at the edges which had never been lost. Next morning the British renewed the offensive but thick mist prevented their artillery from locating targets and the attack soon stopped.

It was now the turn of the Germans to discover that structural defects could impede the operation of a well-laid plan. On the day of the original attack, 10 March, a fresh division, the 6th Bavarian Reserve – in which Adolf Hitler was serving as a battalion runner – had been ordered forward to deliver a counterattack in the early morning of 11 March. On a dark night and across country, however, the troops simply could not march fast enough to reach their designated jumping-off positions. The attack was therefore postponed for a day. When the attack did go in, it was immediately stopped with heavy German losses. The British front-line commanders had used the pause imposed by the mist the day before to consolidate their foothold.

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.

Infantry in fixed positions could bury telephone wire from the front line back to their supporting artillery and higher commands. However, as they went forward to attack they lost contact. They could unroll wire as they advanced but it was frequently cut by shellfire. Wireless sets were still too heavy to be man-portable; they were the preserve of higher commands and navies. Pigeons could do the job if the wind and weather conditions were right, but they were reluctant to fly on the damp, still days which tended to prevail on the western front. Drizzle or mist prevented other forms of observation – the firing of rockets or flares, or the waving of flags in order to indicate progress.

The Germans used dogs to carry messages, but the usual method of communicating progress or of calling for support was human. Runners had to renegotiate the open ground they had just crossed in the attack. Even if they survived, their information was old by the time it was in the hands of those for whom it was destined.

The supreme commander could not take in the situation with a sweep of his field glasses from some vantage point. Now his tasks were more managerial than inspirational. He found himself ‘further back in a house with a spacious office, where telegraphs, telephones and signals apparatus are to hand’, German General Alfred von Schlieffen had written before the war. ‘There, in a comfortable chair before a wide table, the modern Alexander has before him the entire battlefield on a map.’ Linear, positional warfare exacerbated this trend, forcing the commander to place himself behind his troops.

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.

Neuve Chapelle represented a remarkable start. Haig welded a willingness to use innovative techniques with a firm grasp of the practicalities of warfare in 1915 to oversee the creation of tactics that were fit for purpose in tackling a weak German front line backed only by a weak support trench with negligible artillery support. With more experience in maintaining command and control, much more could be achieved.

After the battle it was evident that the frontage attacked at Neuve Chapelle had been too narrow, and the gap it created far too easily plugged by the Germans. The rest of 1915 would see the British generals trying to expand the length of front attacked, but without the artillery and shells needed to have much chance of success.

The BEF could now be taken seriously as an attacking force, yet Neuve Chapelle also highlighted several intrinsic problems of trench assaults. Careful preparation would generally help attackers to break into enemy positions, but it was much harder to move artillery and reserves forward quickly enough to break out of those defences before enemy reinforcements arrived.

The absence of adequate means of communication also rendered it extremely difficult for commanders to control operations once shells had destroyed forward telephone cables and runners had been killed or wounded. However, the effectiveness of the short hurricane bombardment was one lesson which the BEF, to its cost, largely ignored or discounted over the next two years.

Neuve Chapelle was significant also because it anticipated in miniature both the character and the course of the spring offensive in Artois, to which it was a preliminary, as well as its renewal in Artois and Champagne in the autumn. For a moment, indeed, during Neuve Chapelle, the leading waves of British and Indian troops had glimpsed the way open to the crest of Aubers Ridge, which was to be the British objective during their part of the Artois attack.