Neuve Chapelle | 09 Mar 1915

Eighteen hours to go until the start of the Battle of Neuve Chapelle. The heavy artillery is just arriving, right in the very nick of time. Let’s see what’s going on.

Neuve Chapelle

Let’s begin by recapping the plan. The objective of the Battle of Neuve Chapelle is not, in fact, Neuve Chapelle. Neuve Chapelle itself is a first-hour objective. Once taken, the plan then calls for an advance of another mile before the end of the day to capture a viable position on the other side of Aubers Ridge, and then to dig in and repel the inevitable German counter-attack. Their reserves have been found by recon aircraft to be at least eight miles to the rear. Speed will be essential; but the prize for winning the race is considerable.

At the very least, this would win a sector of line where it’s Entente forces who hold the high ground and the favourable observation positions. If all goes well, it could even cause a more general German retirement while they reconsider the ground that they want to defend.

In an ideal world, the BEF will then attack from Aubers Ridge as the French Army attacks again at Vimy Ridge and the Lorette. When talking about strategy on the Western Front, the locations of railway junctions are usually never far behind. And, indeed, in this case the thinking is that the BEF will march on Lille and the French Army on Lens and La Bassee.

I shall now resort to the medium of dodgy MSPaint drawings. First, here’s where Neuve Chapelle is.

Regions of the Western Front, 1914
Regions of the Western Front, 1915

And here’s a closer look at the German positions around the village.

Neuve Chapelle, 9 March 1915
Neuve Chapelle, 9 March 1915

The battlefront has deliberately been kept small. From Richebourg to Fauquissart is no more than three miles. There’s a considerable concentration of artillery in the area, and the depth of the attack has also been kept small to enable the guns to keep supporting it. They’ll have a lot of important jobs. First, they’ll need to cut the belts of barbed wire protecting the German trenches. Then they’ll need to suppress and destroy already-identified German strongpoints, at the Moated Grange and Mauquissart, as well as the many intact buildings in Neuve Chapelle itself. Finally, they’ll be expected to lengthen their range to interdict German attempts to bring up supplies and reinforcements.

And the heavy guns have just arrived at their emplacements. We return to Bombardier W. Kemp, RGA, as they arrive and get straight to work.

We detrained at Estaires, and went into action off the La Bassee Road. We pulled into the orchard of a farm, and I was detailed to join the signallers – or telephonists, as we really were. There was very little Morse code used, and visibility didn’t allow us to use flags. But we all had to set to and get our heavy guns set up double-quick. It was some job, although we were trained to do things double-quick, and it seemed like practice camp all over again.

Sounds promising!

The detachments put down their platforms and bulk holdfast. The guns were anchored to them by a volute spring. But the volute springs had been left behind! That was the first panic. The consequence was that when the guns fired they recoiled about ten yards, and had to be run up by hand to the correct position. Just like the old days in India.

Oh. Let’s bear in mind here that these weapons are giant, unwieldy things. Each howitzer weighs a shade under 8,000 pounds. That’s about as much as a modern container lorry. You try pushing a container lorry forward ten yards while trying to keep it pointing at exactly 78 degrees. As the day wears on, it soon becomes apparent that the question is not how many shells the heaviest guns are going to be able to fire. It’s whether they’ll be able to fire any shells at all.

The Colonel of the brigade came along about this time and spoke to the Major to tell him about the battle tomorrow. They stood at the plane table and the colonel pointed to the map. “One division will go in and swing left, the next will go in and swing right, then the cavalry will go through.” The Major looked at him and said “Like hell they will.” I heard them say it.

Meanwhile, the blokes who are due to be attacking have no time for rest. There’s work to be done. Lance-Corporal William Andrews, a Territorial from the Black Watch, is none too happy about this.

We knew, of course, that we’d have to fight our way across fields so sodden with the winter rain that they were like morasses. Before the battle we threw bridges across drains and watercourses running through our own front. We dragged our way up with ammunition, bombs, rations, sandbags, barbed wire, spare bridges, planks, hurdles, iron pickets. We stored them at dumps in the fields, all through the darkness, night after night.

Soldiers? We were more like sweating coolies. How we came to loathe the sodden tracks, with wire overhead, wire underfoot, every few yards. And still we had to carry our rifles and ammunition. That was the military way, although there was no danger of our being suddenly attacked, and we’d have been a lot more useful as coolies without them.

A coolie is an unskilled labourer from somewhere in the Empire who does all the fetching, carrying, heavy lifting, and anything else below the dignity of a white scion of Britain. It’s also worth remembering that a “bomb” is, in BEF parlance, a hand grenade. And they’re still mostly improvised jam-tin bombs. Alex Letyford and friends have been busy making them, digging the jumping-off trenches, building scaling ladders for the men to climb up to go over the top.

Arthur Agius is moving forward for the last time. He stays back at Pont Logy to give covering fire. Some of the machine guns are going forward, to be set up once a forward position has been established. Charles Tennant and his men are still behind the line; they’ll be in reserve for the first phase of the battle. For them, only thing left to do is wait, to try to sleep, and to look forward to a double issue of rum before the show starts at dawn.

There are still men moving forward as night falls, into the jumping-off trenches, as quietly as possible. The roads behind the front line are still choked with men coming up to attack. As the 9th comes to an end, the men start hearing loud twangs and muffled voices in front of them. The Engineers are still working, this time cutting openings in the barbed wire for the men to advance through.

Actions in Progress

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

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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