Layes Brook | 12 Mar 1915

German reinforcements arrive at the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, and General Joffre’s “brutal” attack goes in at First Champagne.

First Champagne

The attack is indeed brutal, with similar results to what we’re seeing at Neuve Chapelle. (In an ideal world I’d go through First Champagne in the detail I’m analysing Neuve Chapelle, and de-emphasise Neuve Chapelle somewhat, on account of the disparity in casualties, but the English-language information simply isn’t there for it.) There’s an advance, of sorts, dearly won. If insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, the world is truly mad.

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Ah, Punch, the grande dame of British satire.
Ah, Punch, the grande dame of British satire.

Battle of Neuve Chapelle

Charles Tennant is out of it. His Seaforths have been relieved by the Highland Light Infantry, and exhausted, they march back through the night to La Couture. There’s no relief for the Garhwalis and Gurkhas in front of them.

The Brains Trust now has a better understanding of the situation on the ground, and they’re trying to do something about it. The guns and their observation posts are going to be moved forward. The next attack will be delayed until a few hours after daylight, in order to ensure the best visibility possible for artillery spotting. There surely can’t be too many Germans left…

In point of fact, the Germans have another six thousand men. They’ve achieved complete success in concealing themselves from such aerial observation as had been possible in yesterday’s fog (not much). During the night they’ve come up and over the Aubers Ridge. We’ll hand over to Arthur Agius, still observing from Pont Logy.

We’d been building up the parapet and, just before dawn, we got back into the trench and stood to. At this moment, the Hun attacked. It was still dark but round the horizon it was growing light so that the enemy’s legs were clearly defined. It was an extraordinary sight to see this mass of legs coming forward.

They’d been able to get up to within forty or fifty yards before they delivered their assault. We aimed low and just sat down to it. The guns fired beautifully. The Germans came on in dense lines, about eight to ten yards between each line. We absolutely caught them in the dim light, in enfilade.

Later as it grew light we counted over five hundred dead in our front. On the left there were about eight rows of dead, just like swathes of corn. On the right they were scattered where the ground was more broken. Thank God I got a little of my own back and helped to avenge the death of our poor fellows.

They seem to have gone in without artillery support, presumably in an attempt to achieve surprise. It’s achieved some surprise, but they’ve also achieved one of those damn good thrashings, six of the best, trousers down. Meanwhile, at Mauquissart, things have gone even better for the BEF.

Mauquissart Road

This is already small corner of a foreign field that will forever be England. The Midlands, to be precise. Northants, Worcestershires, Sherwood Foresters from Nottingham. Lt Conybeare of the 1st Worcestershires tells what happened in his part of the line as the Germans came on.

Their officers were in front, waving swords, then a great rabble behind, followed by a fat old blighter on a horse. There was the most extraordinary hush for a few seconds as we held our fire while they closed in. Then, at last, we gave them the mad minute of rapid fire. We brought them down in solid chunks. Down went the officers, the sergeant-majors, and the old blighter on the horse. We counter-charged, and back they went for their own trenches four hundred yards away.

It’s time to say “If only…” again. These stories of Germans fleeing back to their own lines after having taken withering casualties are repeated all up and down the front. Only the Worcesters seem to have taken the initiative and pursued them. Not only did they reach the enemy trenches relatively unscathed, they continued driving the Germans back. They captured the machine guns that had been so devastating the day before. If only they could have got messages out. If only others had also taken the initiative and moved the whole line forward.

Their colonel sends a message back. He includes precise map references, in the hope that the artillery won’t shell what they think are German positions. He points out that they’re in a small, isolated salient and they desperately need reinforcement, immediately if not sooner. They spend the next three hours taking what cover they can, turning the captured machine-guns on their former owners as they’re counter-attacked three times. Shells land on them from both directions at once.

By mid-morning, the position is completely untenable, and they make a break for their old trenches. The Colonel doesn’t make it back. Most of their officers are with him. But one very important man has made it out. Unfortunately, he’d left some time ago. That was the company runner, heading back to headquarters with the Colonel’s message…

Sent at about 8am, it’s taken to General Haig at about 1pm. The effect is electric. The cavalry are immediately ordered forward to exploit the opportunity that’s surely only a few hours away. Meanwhile, there should be an attack going in at any time now on the right, against the Bois du Biez. But first, they need to re-cross Layes Brook

Layes Brook

The Germans have spent the last 48 hours strongly fortifying the only bridge across the Layes Brook. There’s no question of being able to bring up bridging materials. It bristles with wire. There’s enough machine guns there to hold off tens of thousands of men. The artillery bombardment isn’t any more successful than it has been over the last few days. The responsible colonel quickly cancels any more attacks after the first wave is cut down within fifty yards of their own wire.

They try one more time at about 5pm. Some troops in this final, fag-end push can’t even go over the top, because their own wire has been knocked into an impenetrable, uncut mess. They’re the lucky ones. The ones who do go over are cut to ribbons once more. Orders eventually come forward to throw in every man for another push, but the reserve battalions moving forward don’t get the message until after dark. Their attempt to assemble for what will now be a night attack is absolutely hopeless, with men everywhere getting lost, marching the wrong way, getting tangled up with other battalions. The attack, mercifully, is cancelled.

General Haig still has hope for the situation. He can see that it’s pointless to try again, now that the enemy knows exactly what they’re trying to do. What they need is a few days’ pause to reorganise, and then to attack again slightly further north, towards the village of Aubers itself. When the plan reaches Sir John French, he approves the notion in principle.

Ruthenes in Hungary

Time now for a sad little story from the other theatre of the war (yes, still being short-changed at the moment, hoping to do something about that very soon). Ruthenia is an ill-defined former region of Eastern Europe, which I can best describe of “a place near the northern Carpathians, kind of sort of where some of Ukraine is now, and kind of sort of full of people who now would probably be Ukrainian. Ish.” There’s a wide-scale distrust of Ruthenes among the Hungarian establishment. Today sees a not-too-untypical happening; an official military request to the government for permission to forcibly relocate an entire community of 1,200 people. They’re Ruthenian, and therefore apparently a security risk.

Many others have been taken into internment, or executed as spies, some of them in summary fashion. The crimes of the First World War are wider by far than those committed against soldiers with machine gun and artillery shell.

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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