Artillery shells | 13 Mar 1915

The bill arrives at GHQ for the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, but it’s not the price in lives that Sir John French is objecting to. But first, back to those jolly old Dardanelles.

Sir Ian Hamilton

Actually, it’s back to London. Sir Ian Hamilton has been informed that he’s to command the Constantinople Expeditionary Force, and that’s about all he knows. (He has politely suggested that they call it the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force instead, and this will soon be done.) He’s been having some meetings with Lord Kitchener, which he records in arse-aching detail in his diary. Here’s the practical upshot.

As night falls, he’s already on a train out of London, speeding ahead to take ship, with a truly staggering lack of information about what the hell he’s actually supposed to be doing. The discussions with Kitchener have mostly revolved around Constantinople. Only if the Navy can’t force its way through the Dardanelles unassisted will he be needed to do anything else. There are no instructions about how to proceed if that should happen.

His staff officers, such as they are, are almost completely unknown to him. He’s travelling with only a few of them. The full complement of staff won’t be gathered until the end of the month. Hamilton has plenty of doubts about everything. The quality of such intelligence as he’s had access to, the availablity of aeroplanes for spotting and recon…but on he goes nevertheless.

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Battle of Neuve Chapelle

The decisive action of today occurs at St Omer, behind Sir John French’s desk. He’s just receieved reports on how many artillery shells have been fired in the last four days. Even bearing in mind the artillery’s experiences in the first few months of the war, they’ve still brutally underestimated how many shells they were going to need. They do have just about enough ammunition in reserve to keep the guns from running out entirely, but French can only conclude that renewing the battle as General Haig imagines is impractical.

They’ll go back and forth on this for a couple of days, but the battle is over. Bombardier W. Kemp reports that the four guns in his battery have five rounds of ammunition. That’s five rounds between all of them, not five rounds each. Fortunately, the weather today is a thick, yellow, lyddite-infused smog. There’s no hope of anyone attacking while it holds, even if they’d been inclined to.

Stretcher-bearers go out. One of them reports his clothes being so soaked with the blood of the dead and wounded that he had to draw a new uniform from the stores. (Anyone vaguely familiar with the reluctance of quartermasters to issue anything at all will appreciate how bad it must have been.) Meanwhile, William Andrews is still up the line, but in reserve positions rather than occupying the fire trench. He’s got a funny story for us.

I was stationed with my section to guard a water pump at a brewery on the edge of Neuve Chapelle. Right beside it there was a notice-board still standing, with just one word on it. It said “DANGER”. Nicholson laughed and laughed as if it was the greatest joke of the war! He couldn’t stop laughing. I was too tired to laugh. By that time I was absolutely stupid with fatigue and cold and the strain of it all.

Meanwhile, even those who are out of it are far from comfortable. Charles Tennant has spent the last 24 hours trying to get back to his rest billet.

What a road it was, blocked with traffic every two hundred yards. Troops passing up to the front, ambulances passing down away from it. Progress was incredibly slow, and despite the endless halts we were never able to get our packs off. Consequently the six miles seemed like sixteen.

The C.O. detailed me to take a party of forty men back to Neuve Chapelle to check casualties’ kits as far as possible, but he later countermanded this because the Germans were shelling the roads and he didn’t want to risk men’s lives for the sake of dead men’s belongings.

We marched off, and after another incredibly tedious march, held up for over an hour by a blocked road, we reached our destination. We have the best billets we’ve had for many a long day.

As night falls, reliefs finally begin to arrive for the Indians. Of course, it goes far from smoothly for Captain Bagot-Chester’s Gurkhas

We got away at about 8pm after being relieved by the HLI. Off I went with the men, pleased as could be, but I only got as far as brigade headquarters, about a mile away. The General said he was very sorry but we had to stay as reserve to the brigade which had taken over from us.

Bagot-Chester now deploys some understatement.

This was rather hard after five days and nights with not a wink of sleep for anyone. All night we’d had to work at improving our trench, and all day it was impossible to sleep for the artillery and the risk of a German attack. There was nothing for it, so I explained it to the men and almost cried for pity at their disappointment. They took it very well, turned about without a word, and marched back.

No sooner had we got back to battalion headquarters than a staff officer came up and said it was a mistake, and we were no longer required.

The Gurkhas drag themselves away again, stopping only at the first water pump they’ve seen in a week.

The end of the battle

Here’s one of those gifs again. Frame 1, the position before the battle. Frame 2, the position after it.

If you squint really hard, you can just about say that some of the men have advanced a mile.
Yes, there are two frames.

The furthest rate of advance is about 1,000 yards. Maybe 1,500 if you’re lucky. For this ground, the British Army has lost about 7,000 men, with a further 4,200 Indian casualties. Depending which way you add up, the Germans have taken about 10,000 losses of their own, most of the killed and wounded coming in their counter-attack yesterday.

Forcing of the Dardanelles

Meanwhile, the fleet continues to wrestle with a real Klein bottle of a conundrum. They can’t force ships through the Narrows to suppress the Turkish forts because of all the mines, but they can’t sweep any of the mines because the forts keep shooting at them. Having swapped the civilian minesweeper crews for naval volunteers, Admiral Keyes makes another go of it. They do succeed in sweeping most of the first line of mines, but there are nine more belts waiting behind it.

Additionally, the old protected cruiser HMS Amethyst has taken a couple of deadly hits (she’s still afloat, but her crew took severe casualties). Four of the minesweepers were disabled and have had to be towed out of the strait. Admiral Carden writes another report, indicating that he’s lost patience with his current tactics. Now he intends to shove as many ships as possible into the Dardanelles at daylight, suppress the enemy gunfire, and have the mines swept under this cover.

Carden is not a well man. He’s not eaten or slept well for the last several days. He’s also suffering from a horrible stomach ulcer. There’s a brief suggestion that troops should be landed as an alternative, but what would be the point of landings if not to use the regulars of 29th Division?

Actions in Progress

Siege of Przemysl
Battle of Champagne (First Champagne)
Forcing of the Dardanelles
Battle of Neuve Chapelle

Further Reading

The Daily Telegraph is republishing its archives from the war day-by-day.

(If you find the olde-tyme style difficult to get along with, have a look at this reading guide.)

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