The very first British offensive of the Great War was meticulously planned, and almost as meticulously carried out. Britain was persuaded that the attack was necessary by Marshal Joseph Joffre of the French army, who was worried by the fact that the Noyon Salient, a jutting bit of land in Northern France that poked its nose within 75 miles of Paris, was in German control. According to Mark Adkin’s ‘Western Front Companion’, his hope was that with the British attacking in the Artois Region and the French threatening Champagne, they could together trap and neutralise the German forces in the danger zone.
Since the army was to be pressed into action, the British commanders were determined to make their mark, and duly set about preparing their assault. First, they employed the help of the Royal Flying Corps to scope out the ground by photographing the region as they flew overhead. Next, they used the information gained to plan exactly where and how they would mount the attack. The bulk of the 340 guns and howitzers at their disposal were ring-fenced for the initial bombardment, but specific weapons were also assigned to attack trenches, take out enemy guns, or attack the village and other targets of interest.
The next step was to get everything into place. Tramlines were laid in the night, made of wood to keep the noise down, and engineered to run extremely closed to the battleground. Ammunition and stores were carefully stockpiled, and every gun was moved into place days before the attack began. The commanders realised that surprise would play a key part in ensuring the success of the plan, so men and arms were moved into position as quietly as possible. Then, on 10th March 1915, the artillery barrage began.
At that point in the war the barrages were lasting for days on end, consuming millions of shells across a very wide front, but General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien, commander of the Second British Army, was painfully aware that his ammunition was scarce. As Gary Sheffield’s ‘The First World War in 100 Objects’ explains, the amount of ammunition needed had been calculated on the basis of shells expended in the Boer War, and fell way short of the quantity required for this conflict. He therefore ordered the barrage to take place along a narrow 2,000 yard front, much to the dismay of the Germans, who hadn’t expected the assault to be quite so concentrated; but that wasn’t the only surprise in store. Just as they were settling in for a long wait as the bombs fell, the barrage stopped dead after 35 minutes. In rushed the British troops of IV Corps and the Indian Corps. Before they knew what was happening, the soldiers of German VII Corps and XIX Corps (Sixth Army) found themselves fighting for their lives.
The ferocity of the attack is well described by an Indian soldier, Rifleman Amar Singh Rawat of the Garhwal Rifles, whose letter to a friend is quoted in ‘The Western Front Companion’. He wrote: “Up to now the war has been as follows – the Germans kept firing from their trenches and we from ours. But on the 9th and 10th of March we attacked the Germans… When we reached their trenches we used the bayonet and the kukri (a wickedly curved knife most associated with the Gurkha regiments), and blood was shed so freely that we could not recognise each other’s faces… the scene was indescribable.”
The British Army actually had a 4:1 numerical advantage, as well as the element of surprise over the Germans, and they made wonderful progress with the first charge. They breached the German line, took the village of Neuve Chapelle and took the whole of the La Bassée-Aubers Ridge. The idea was to then push on to Lille to really seal the victory, but things didn’t work out as planned. Some kind of breakdown in communication meant that the British support battalions did not receive the message to move in straight away, so that there was a long delay. This gave the harassed Germans time to pull themselves together and send for their own reinforcements. They subsequently launched a counter-attack on 12th March, which prevented further advancements and actually pushed the British back somewhat; however, they kept control of the village. During the battle Britain had sustained 12,000 casualties, with German losses being near enough equal. Both claimed to have won at the time, but in hindsight Neuve Chappelle is generally conceded to have been a British win.
While the battle yielded few gains, it did teach the commanders a thing or two about which tactics worked (a fierce but short artillery barrage immediately followed by a carefully planned out infantry attack, with aerial support and the element of surprise fuelling to push) and what could go wrong (again and again, lapses in communication and lack of ammunition would bring about the downfall of a seemingly victorious army). By 1918 they would have perfected a rapid, multi-pronged assault technique that helped Britain to win the war. It is just a shame that it took many defeats and disappointments to teach them the necessary lessons, and that so many lives were lost in the interim.