The BEF takes its first serious offensive action in a long time today. Arguably since the start of the war, depending on how you feel about the Battle of the Aisne. Certainly it’s the first major planned offensive. We’re with them as they go over the top. First, here’s the map again.
Waiting for zero hour
The attack, of course, will be at dawn. 35 minutes of hurricane bombardment on the German front line, and then the range will lengthen to the German rear areas. Some have only to wait; others still have things to do. Charles Tennant’s Seaforth Highlanders spend the witching hours marching forward to their reserve positions to await news of success and orders to push forward. William Andrews’s Black Watch are already up the line.
Snow swept down on us as we waited in the flooded trenches near Neuve Chapelle. We grew colder and colder. It was sheer biting torture. … We shambled over ground hardened by frost. It was colder than ever.
The frost is something of a blessing. The harder the ground, the easier it will be to cross. Dawn breaks. The light streams across the fields. Birds sing. And then it starts. Captain Bagot-Chester of the Gurkhas is waiting to go over the top.
Our guns fired without a fraction of a second’s break. You couldn’t hear yourself speak. It was a continual rattle and road. We lay very low in our trenches, as several of our guns were firing short. Later I picked up two shrapnel bullets and the bottom of a shell fuse. They’d landed right beside me.
The whole air and the solid earth itself became one quivering jelly. After the first few minutes, the men didn’t seem to worry much about the row. I was conscious of nothing but the extraordinary sense of security the infantryman gets from hearing artillery fire from his own side.
An aeroplane was observing not that far in front of us. Through all that bombardment, and in fact all through the heavy shelling of that day and the next, the larks mounted carolling up to the sky with shells screaming all around them. As though all that devil’s din was only some insane nightmare, and all the was really true was the coming of spring.
Speaking of spring. Bombardier W. Kemp is having trouble with his springless heavy howitzers. His observation officer has been forced to install himself in a haystack. They try to range their guns on the target, but the observation post is poor. Even if he had a perfect view, the guns are recoiling ten yards backward after every shot, and have to be taken forward and repositioned.
That first morning we were lucky if we fired two shots in ten minutes. It was anybody’s guess where they were going. When the infantry went over, the wire wasn’t cut at all.
Battle of Neuve Chapelle
Kemp’s guns are firing, in theory, on Mauquissart and the Moated Grange, on the BEF’s left. They fire all too few shots before the hurricane bombardment ends. Let’s now join Arthur Agius on the right, as the officers’ whistles blow, and the men go over the top…
It was hell let loose. The village and the trenches in front were blown to bits. The village seemed to melt away before out eyes. Nearest us were the 2/39th Garhwals. Suddenly I saw a fellow stop, and then spin until he fell. Others pushed on, got through a hedge, eased to their left and got in further along. It was wonderful to watch the two attacks converge and meet.
Captain Bagot-Chester is right in one of those two attacks.
Our first and second attacking lines reached the enemy trenches without much loss. The Boche were obviously quite demoralised by the bombardment. We all reached our obective, with only about 96 casualties in the whole battalion [of 1,000 men], and started to dig ourselves in in case of a counter-attack. Our attack appeared to have taken them completely by surprise. Sone snipers left behind in our advance troubled us for some time, until they were cleared out by the Leicesters on our right.
The attack on the right is a complete success. In about an hour, signal flags are being raised in trenches all the way on the other side of Neuve Chapelle. As Bagot-Chester describes, reinforcements are coming up to clear out the village. Orders go to Charles Tennant’s Seaforths to move up into support, and as they go up they go past parties of compliant prisoners being taken to the rear.
The Black Watch haven’t gone forward yet. And then, as they wait for orders, the messages percolate back into the German rear…
We thought the German guns must have been swept out of existence, but they soon opened up. Looking along the breastwork I could see shrapnel plumping down on our own, all along our line. Every shell came about ten yards nearer. We could see our turn coming and all we could do was lie and wait for it.
William Andrews is lucky. He soon gets orders to move up into the old German positions. Above the trenches, Donald Lewis is circling, transmittting a few fire corrections, but mostly spotting the German guns so that counter-battery fire can be directed to them. Messages have been sent back to headquarters, and hours later, runners are returning with orders. The orders are to hold in place. Their left flank is not secure, and it’s taken the brass hats a while to riddle out the situation.
The 2nd Middlesex went over the top at zero hour toward the Moated Grange, and disappeared into the mist. No messages came back. At first, it was assumed that they must have succeeded and then run into difficulty. After all, there aren’t any casualties coming back either…
Eventually someone realises that the reason that there are no wounded coming back is because everyone’s dead. The line’s only being held by a few companies of Germans, but they’re plentifully equipped with machine guns and ammunition. To the immediate right of the Middlesex, a stretcher-bearer with the Cameronians is in the middle of something very similar.
They got up to the German trench, but the wire wasn’t cut at all and the Germans were shooting like mad while our lads were lying in the mud with wire cutters. Those that didn’t have them were hacking at it with bayonets. Eventually they did get through and over this high parapet of sandbags. They hadn’t been touched by the shells, mark you! In they went with the bayonet. They chased the Germans from traverse to traverse until they were all accounted for.
But our losses were appalling during the few minutes it took to cut the wire. They went down like ninepins. Every single Company Commander went down leading the attack, and the Major, and the Adjutant, and the Colonel. They’d all been years in the Army, excellent soldiers, and we could ill-afford to lose such men. All the officers went, killed or wounded.
Meanwhile, on the extreme right, there’s another problem. Another battalion of Garhwals has got slightly turned round on the unfamiliar ground, and advanced in the wrong direction. They aren’t entirely unsupported; for a while the artillery fire here is just as intense, part of the deception operation. But then it disappears entirely. Nevertheless, in a supreme military feat, they still succeed in capturing the trenches they’ve advanced towards.
Meanwhile, General Rawlinson has ordered another bombardment and offensive at the Moated Grange. The guns finally have the range this time, and the second bombardment is devastating. As the infantry advances again, it’s all they can do not to trip over the dead bodies of the Middlesex, still lying in three distinct open-order lines.
Here’s the map again, this time at about 12 noon, if anyone had been able to put all the pieces together…
The way is completely clear to the Aubers Ridge. All it needs is an order to advance. The order never comes. For one thing, that gap in the line at Port Arthur is absolutely deadly. It can pour enfilade fire onto anyone who pokes his head over a parapet. If the men advance, it’s a natural stronghold for the Germans to break out of and cut them off again. Also, unknown to the BEF at this stage, not only is Mauquissart heavily fortified, but so are three outwardly-nondescript cottages behind it. This position could have had exactly the same effect as the Port Arthur one.
So the men in the front lines wait. And they wait. There’s a line of German field guns at the Bois du Biez. The gunners had sensibly advanced to the rear, leaving their guns behind, at the sight of their trenches filling with khaki uniforms. As afternoon wears on, they’re creeping back up, and firing at the troops over open sights.
The British communications have completely broken down. German shell-fire has cut telephone wires. Infantry and artillery have no direct communications. Some guns end up shelling their own men. Communications back to headquarters are even more impossible. By the early afternoon, General Haig is aware that things are going well and he orders a general advance for 2pm. However, the first stage of such an advance involves reduction of the strong-points at Mauquissart and Port Arthur…
The afternoon: on the left
By the time fresh plans have been laid and orders can reach the trenches, it’s 4pm, and the men are now racing the sun as it falls out of the sky. Confusion and congestion reigns in Neuve Chapelle as orderlies and runners and officers try to make sense of their orders and work out where they should be and what they should be doing.
It’s nearly dark by the time the men advance on Mauquissart again. The artillery has done their best, but many of the targets that are now being fired on haven’t been pre-registered by the guns. In the dim light, observation of the fall of shot is virtually impossible. A few German reserves have reinforced the strong-points. The men are over 400 yards from them, and this time with no hope of digging jumping-off trenches.
Their attack is a dismal, bloody failure. As dark falls, the only thing they can do is lie still, dig in as best they can, and send runners back with fresh messages. The runners take three hours to deliver their messages, groping their way back towards headquarters in the dark…
The afternoon: on the right
It’s a similar story at Port Arthur. One section of German trench was captured for a while, but then the first reserves arrived and threw them out again. Meanwhile, there are relatively fresh men waiting in front of the Bois du Biez all afternoon, dodging occasional gunfire. They’re pretty sure that the only thing between them and Aubers Ridge are a few lonely gunners. But they can’t advance. They’d be pushing far in advance of any support. Without a great deal of luck, it’d be child’s play for German reinforcements to go around them and cut them off.
And then comes intelligence that the German reserves are arriving, and they’re already digging in inside the Bois du Biez. That puts paid to any thought of advancing that day. With few other forces having successfully crossed the Layes Brook, they’re forced to retire across it and dig in there.
Charles Tennant has moved up just in time to cover the retirement of Captain Bagot-Chester and the Gurkhas. He’s quite peeved as he crosses the brook again and, borrowing an entrenching tool, digs himself a tiny scrape in the ground.
Back to the badly-drawn map.
If only the communications were better. If only the guns were more accurate. And despite it all, they were so very, very close to complete success. So near, and yet so far…
Forcing of the Dardanelles
Meanwhile, there’s still a war going on elsewhere. One of the sub-commanders, Admiral Keyes, is fed up with the minesweeping failures, so this time he sends Canopus with the trawlers, and goes personally to see exactly what the problems are. And he sees plenty of them. One of the minesweepers becomes disoriented in the dark and hits a mine herself. The rest turn about and depart the Narrows very soon thereafter.
Actions in Progress
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