Bois du Biez | Mauquissart | 11 Mar 1915

It’s the second day of the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, but that’s not all. We’re going to finish at the Dardanelles, but first we’re going back to First Champagne.

First Champagne

French reinforcements are ready for General Joffre’s “brutal” attack. Bite and hold has, for the moment, been abandoned. Orders are given to consolidate positions “immediately” and then use them to attack again, rather than trying to dig in to repel counter-attacks. This is surely the last chance for elan to prove itself against Maxims and Minenwerfers.

Herbert Sulzbach has seen his last action, though. His battery is being withdrawn from the line, and their replacements are only faced with demonstrations. For him the First Battle of Champagne is over, and nothing says this so clearly as the resumption of postal services.

The mail includes a letter to me from Lt Reinhardt [in hospital after being wounded], with a photo of himself and a dedication. “To Herbert Sulzbach, from Lt Reinhardt, as a souvenir of February 1915.” You would really have wanted to weep for all the feelings of mourning, joy, happiness, admiration, longing, but you can’t cry any more. You just can’t do it.

The Champagne winter battle…has come to an end. … It was our first victory in defence against a force many times our superior in numbers, and taught us a large number of lessons useful for defensive actions in the future.

Oh, spoilers. Sorry about that. You probably guessed what was going to happen.

Battle of Neuve Chapelle

The story so far, if that story were told by someone who can’t draw trying to use MSPaint:

The approximate situation at the end of the 10th
The approximate situation at the end of the 10th

The good news, although no BEF man can possibly know it, is that the German reserves have been significantly delayed. Marching from Lille, they’ve had problems navigating down narrow, unfamiliar roads in pitch dark, and by the time dawn breaks they’re still on the wrong side of Aubers Ridge. Crossing it in daylight would only make them into target practice, so they all find somewhere to hide from any recon planes and hurry up to wait out the day.

For the BEF, the first priority is clearly to do something about those annoying buggers in Mauquissart. The second is to stop the enemy occupying and fortifying the Bois du Biez. Port Arthur for the moment is going to be heavily shelled, but they’re also going to try to shuffle up from the right, surround it, and force the strong-point to surrender in its own time.

Mauquissart

There’s only enough ammunition today for a 15-minute bombardment before the men can leave their holes and attack the Mauquissart strong-points again. Not that it matters much, because dawn reveals heavy fog that blinds the observation posts. It doesn’t help that nobody can be quite sure exactly where the British line is now, and they’ve still not had an opportunity to range properly on the German positions.

When the men go over the top it’s absolute slaughter. The Germans still in position have got messages back to their artillery, who of course know exactly where their old positions are. The bombardment lasts three hours and covers the entire front from Mauquissart to Port Arthur, and behind the old British lines as well. Neuve Chapelle has been turned from a village into a collection of gently smoking ruins. All the communication wires have been thoroughly cut. Bombardier W. Kemp is trying to do something about that.

We’d been in the haystack all night trying to keep the telephone lines open to the battery. I’d been issued with proper wire cutters, the same as they used for barbed wire, and I was supposed to use these on the telephone wire! I soon lost them. We had one pair of pliers between all of us. The batteries were six large cells in a wooden box. They had to be excited by adding water and leaving them for a few hours. Some of them were ready to use, but when all hell was let loose it didn’t matter.

The only way to get any kind of communications back now is by runner. The Grenadier Guards have somehow struggled forward a few hundred yards from the Moated Grange and forded a wide, six-foot-deep ditch. On the maps, the only watercourse of any significance is the Layes Brook, and the runner is sent back with a message that they’ve crossed the brook with the enemy a couple of hundred yards ahead, and would like another bombardment so they can advance again.

Unfortunately, they’re less than halfway to the brook. The bombardment is accurate, but it’s falling several hundred yards behind where it needs to be. Sensibly, they decline to advance when it lifts.

Bois du Biez

Charles Tennant isn’t having it any better. During the night, such Germans as are left have been regrouping, and after Tennant and the Gurkhas retired back across the Layes Brook, they’ve been busy digging themselves a new trench. This one isn’t particularly deep, but critically, it’s a healthy few hundred yards in front of the Bois du Biez. And the brass hats have no idea it’s there.

Consequently, they’ve assumed that the enemy will be taking cover inside the wood, and that’s where the bombardment falls. Some hours later, he takes his mind off the intermittent German shelling by scribbling a letter.

The repellent facts are that the Germans at once opened a hot rifle and machine-gun fire both on the Gurkhas and ourselves. We had several casualties and our colonel was wounded in the thigh. One of the stretcher-bearers going to fetch him was shot through the head. His body fell back into my scrape in the ground. I’d moved to a neighbouring shell-hole just a moment before.

The firing was so heavy that we couldn’t send [the colonel] back for some time. When he did go, he was unlucky enough to be hit again in almost exactly the same place.

The rest of the morning passes with contradictory orders being issued, based on incorrect or out-of-date information. The runners who have to carry them are providing excellent targets for a little five-mile sniping. By the afternoon, another pair of short bombardments have been ordered. In front of the Bois du Biez, the Gurkhas have advanced a couple of hundred yards, with Charles Tennant’s Seaforths taking over their old positions. But nobody’s advanced on their left from the positions in front of Neuve Chapelle.

Mauquissart again

It’s the same story on the far left. Orders have come directly from General Haig to take Mauquissart this afternoon. Unfortunately, they’ve come up so slowly that the bombardment that’s supposed to cover their advance is long finished by the time they arrive. Additionally, the men are no less than 500 yards (that’s five times the distance men were expected to advance across No Man’s Land on Day 1) from the German positions, and the ground in front of them has now been rendered a featureless, coverless wasteland.

Orders are orders. By a superhuman effort, and after going over the top four times, one battalion manages to move forward 100 yards from their starting positions, where they start digging in again in the lee of some abandoned wrecks of buildings.

End of the day

If all goes well, there should now be an animated gif here. One frame is of the positions last evening. The other is of the positions this evening. Spot the difference!

That's not gone well.
That’s not gone well.

The Seaforths and the Gurkhas have gone back across the Layes Brook. If they get counter-attacked tomorrow, much better to make the enemy cross it. We’ll give Lt Tennant the last word today. As night falls, he starts going round the wounded to see what can be done.

Thank Heaven I am not a thirsty person. Although my water bottle had not been replenished for two days, it was more than half full. Poor John Allan, my best NCO, was hit in three places. Luckily, a Gurkha officer had some morphia tablets with him, and he gave them to the men who needed them most. As soon as I had done all that I could, I hurried back to get stretchers. It was a desperate task, as our casualty list had been very heavy, and moreover our first aid post was a long way back.

It had been shelled out of the houses on the Neuve Chapelle Road and had to go back into safety, so the few stretchers took a long, long time on the way. Finally we rigged up stretchers with puttees and great-coats and rifles. It took three hours and a lot of time and trouble to get the wounded carried down. Allan died on the way, to my great sorrow.

And they haven’t even attacked anyone, just followed in the Gurkhas’ wake…

Forcing of the Dardanelles

Admiral Keyes is in a foul mood after tonight’s latest hilarious failure at minesweeping, and vents his feelings against the civilian crews of the minesweeping trawlers.

To put it briefly, the sweepers turned tail and fled directly they were fired upon. I was furious and told the officers in charge that…it did not matter if we lost all seven sweepers. There were 28 more and the mines had got to be swept up. How could they talk of being stopped by heavy fire if they were not hit?

While this appears a reasonable description of what actually happened, his judgement is, ahem, slightly unfair. Minesweeping under artillery fire is not what any of these men signed up for. They’re not Navy men. In response, Admiral Carden sends a message to the fleet, asking for volunteers to man the trawlers. Tomorrow it’s the turn of the French to have a go at the minefield, but on the 13th we’ll see if men who are used to working under fire can do any better.

Constantinople Expeditionary Force

Meanwhile, with five divisions now committed to the Mediterranean theatre (two ANZAC, the 29th, the Royal Naval Division, and one French division who will cooperate in much the same way that Sir John French is cooperating with General Joffre), the force needs a commander. Sir Ian Hamilton was one of the first Army officers to come through the new system of promotion on merit rather than by buying a commission. He’s seen action in both Boer Wars, and was sent to observe the Russo-Japanese War in 1905.

Since the war started, he’s been mouldering away, commanding the defence of England. His experiences in 1905 have left him with unwelcome, unconventional opinions like doubting the effectiveness of cavalry charges against barbed wire and machine-guns. He’s an original thinker, he’s a supporter of things like night attacks and heavy use of aircraft. He’s also somewhat unpopular among his peers, and so has not been considered for command on the Western Front. On the face of it, it seems like he has plenty of qualities that will be very useful for the fighting that will eventually develop.

Unfortunately, his personality seems singularly unsuited to him being in command of anything. He’s polite to a fault, a deeply non-confrontational individual. (This had made him an ideal chief of staff for the forceful Kitchener in South Africa.) You may have noticed that I don’t usually spend this amount of time talking about individual generals. There are many reasons for why I’m going into his personal qualities so deeply, and we’ll soon find out what they are.

Incidentally, the force was indeed originally called the “Constantinople Expeditionary Force”. The thought does occur that this is not great for secrecy. It’s not a good start.

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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