from ‘The War Illustrated’, 3rd April, 1915
'Neuve Chapelle's Immortal Story'


An Early British Offensive

Neuve Chapelle as seen by a British magazine


The Great Episodes of the War

On February 15th, 1915, General Joffre made his first offensive movement since the British advance on Menin was checked in the autumn of 1914: Neither the French nor the British armies were ready, in the middle of February, to resume the offensive. For .though their new formations were arriving in vast numbers, the ground was still in a very bad condition between the opposing fronts. If it had been left to General Joffre there would have been no serious movement against the Germans until the March winds had dried the soil.


French attack in the Champagne


The Plan to Smash the Russians

But a cry for help came from Russia. All through the winter the Russians had been fighting at a heavy disadvantage. The closing of the Dardanelles and the freezing of Archangel port had interrupted the munitioning of the armies of the Tsar. Meanwhile, the German Commander-in-Chief was profiting by-the condition of the ground in France and Flanders, and withdrawing army corps of first-line troops there and launching them, with new levies, against the Russians. The plan was to smash the Russians by an overwhelming concentration of force before the warm weather and the guns of the Queen Elizabeth opened the channels by which war material could be poured into Russia. When Russia was thoroughly defeated, most of the tremendous forces operating on the eastern front would be, swung over against the French, British, and Belgian lines.

This was why General Joffre ordered an advance against the western German front before his armies were ready for the spring campaign. At any cost of men the first-line German army had to be tied to the French and British trenches. The German Commander-in-Chief had to be induced not to send any further reinforcements to Hindenburg. General Joffre' proceeded to point put to General von Falkenhayn exactly where any further new levies that Germany had ready for action should be placed.

How Joffre Checkmated von Falkenhayn

In the chalky, absorbent soil of the heath of Champagne the winter rain and frost had not made such a bog between the opposing fronts as in other places. There was a stretch of three and a half miles of trench by the village of Perthes held by some 20,000 infantrymen of the Rhine. General Joffre resolved that a quarter of a million of the German reinforcements, destined for the grand attack against the Russians, should be brought instead to Perthes.

Very simple Was the method by which the French commander imposed his will upon the German commander. He secretly collected 200,000 troops in front of Perthes, with a vast store of large howitzer shells and howitzers. On Monday, February 15th, there opened abruptly a terrific bombardment of the trenches held by the 20,000 Rhinelanders. Something like a hundred thousand high-explosive shells were pitched into the German trenches.

Under the hurricane fire of their siege ordnance the French troops charged the shaken and surprised enemy. They did not shoot. Rushing towards the German trenches, they pitched hand bombs into the ditches, and then leaped down and used the bayonet. Then they dug for their lives, to re-shape the captured, battered earthworks for protection against the fire of the German guns, and the infantry counter-attack that was certain to follow.

General von Einem was the German commander in this region. He brought up his reserves, but they were defeated. He weakened his line at other places to strengthen the Perthes position, but the overpowering force of French troops and French guns continued to batter down all opposition. The struggle went on for twenty-six days.

Always the French made steady and continuous progress against the fortifications which the Germans had been constructing for five months. Despite innumerable counterattacks, they were never forced back on any day behind the line they held in the morning. In each counter-attack the Germans lost heavily, and the spirit of their troops began to decline. Part of the re-formed Prussian Guard was brought up to recapture a small height — Hill 196 — held by the French, but they broke against the defence.'

The French picked up and buried ten thousand Germans as they advanced, and the German Great Staff was moved to make the extraordinary confession that they had lost more troops on the front of three and a half miles at Perthes than in the Prashysch-Niemen campaign against the Russians.

But, at any cost of life, the French advance had- to be stayed. Otherwise, the German front would be broken and a general retreat would be brought about. The entire line from the North Sea to Switzerland was therefore weakened, in order to mass 300,000 or more men, with a vast park of heavy ordnance, behind the bulge at Perthes.

As we have seen, a division of the Prussian Guard was railed up to reinforce Einem’s men. Now it was known to French and British Headquarters that the Prussian Guard had been holding the trenches at Neuve Chapelle village, a hundred miles to the north of the Champagne pine waste.

The War's Most Devastating Bombardment

At Neuve Chapelle was the Fourth British Army Corps; under Sir Henry Rawlinson, and the Indian Army Corps, under Sir James Willcox. They were ordered to co-operate with the French army round Rsrthes by making an attack upon Neuve Chapelle. A day or two passed in stealthy preparations for this new move. Many of our heaviest pieces of ordnance were massed a few miles in front of Neuve Chapelle. A huge number of shells were collected round the guns, while our airmen constantly patrolled the sky above, and drove away any hostile aerial scout who might have discovered the vast, secret preparations.

At half-past seven in the morning of Wednesday, March 10th, the process of stopping German reinforcements to Hindenburg in East Prussia was continued at Neuve Chapelle, while the French at Perthes were still holding the enemy in increasing number. We had sonic four hundred guns and howitzers massed against the two and a quarter miles of German trenches round Neuve Chapelle. At half-past seven all these pieces of ordnance began, raining shells on the enemy's lines. The bombardment only lasted thirty-five minutes, but it was the most devastating outburst of artillery power in the war. Earth arid sky seemed to rock with the continuous, eardrum-shattering roar. Each detachment worked at extreme pressure to get as many shells as possible out of their great tubes. It was hell-fire gunnery in the British naval style rather than a military bombardment — like forty battleships working as a gigantic sort of machine-gun against little more than two miles of sodden earthworks.

The Charge of the Overseas Troops

The German front line of entrenched troops had no chance of resistance. Many of those who were not blown up, buried, or stifled by the great lyddite shells, were so dazed by the explosions that they sat half -stunned till taken prisoners. In the meantime the British and Indian infantry, with a Canadian division, rushed over the muddy space between the opposing fronts, without being shot at by the enemy, while our terrible gunfire was going on. Sir John French was directing the operations in person, and he surprised even the French by his originality.

There were no dense masses of Divisions of Death rushing out to be slaughtered in the Kluck and Hindenburg method of attack. Field- Marshal von Heeringen had recently observed that British troops were terrible when on the defensive but not powerful enough in the offensive. Every German general once thought that only by massed formations could a position be stormed. They now had another lesson in the handling of infantry. Our men advanced in rushes in open order, with their reserves and supports a considerable distance behind them. But the unexcelled, unequalled power of their rifle .fire — a well-aimed shot every four seconds from 'every man — more than compensated for the thinness of the leading fighting-line.


Indian troops charging German positions at Neuve Chapelle


Indians' Prowess and Deadly Skill

Our guns and howitzers had shelled the enemy's barbed-wire entanglements as well as his trenches. This was, indeed, a most important work of preparation, and our first losses chiefly occurred in the spots where no gap had been blown in the German wire defences. Here and there the assault failed through our troops getting hung up on the wire, giving time for the Germans to bring their machine-gun's into action. But while our held-up troops gallantly fought on, the German trenches were stormed through the gaps farther south by the Indians, and the Germans, working the machine- guns against our wired-out men, were taken by surprise in flank or rear and killed or captured.

The Indians were heroic. They had given ground to the Germans in this part of the front some months before, when the enemy had the advantage in the artillery power. Now that the horrible, shattering force, of heavy ordnance was largely on our side, the Indians were able to display fully their prowess and deadly skill in hand-to-hand combat. Winning the trenches, they rushed with the Britons and Canadians to the ruined village, where the hottest, fiercest fighting took place. The Germans had placed machine-guns, in the houses. Sometimes there were six machine-guns in one house, commanding every line of approach. A shell from our light quick-firers would have cleaved them out; but this was a battle at express speed. Having bullet and bayonet at hand, our men did not wait for their guns to come up, but gave the machine-gun men the ..mad minute and cleared the house with the bayonet.

The Immortal Division — the Seventh- — which had tried in October to save Antwerp, and. had saved the Belgian Army and then held the trenches of Ypres for nineteen days, got back on the enemy at last at Neuve Chapelle. Since losing nearly five men out of every six, in the greatest achievement in our history, it had reorganised, and its scanty veterans filled the new drafts with their high spirit, as the division, with the other bayonets of our Fourth Army Corps, drove against the German position from the north. The German trenches were taken in an hour. Three hours afterwards the fortified village houses were ; captured, and by half-past five in the afternoon the last defences of the Germans, a mass of wire entanglements and pits known as Port Arthur, were carried by storm.

The British Airmen's Part

In ten hours our 48,000 infantrymen at Neuve Chapelle had won more ground than their more numerous French comrades at Perthes had gained in ten days. This, of course, was largely due to the French troops. By their tenacious attack in Champagne they had drawn away many of the Germans defending the Neuve Chapelle position, and had thus prepared for our success. Yet this is not the full explanation. Our assault was a masterpiece in tactics. The bombardment was as short as it was intense. It did not last long enough to enable the Germans to bring up reinforcements. They were blown out of their trenches and bayoneted before help could arrive. For while our infantry was attacking in overwhelming numbers our airmen were bombing the neighbouring railway centres — Menin, Courtrai, sand Don — breaking down bridges, wrecking stations, and hindering transport of reinforcements to the endangered position.

Had it not been for the fog that gathered in the evening, preventing our artillerymen and their aerial scouts from blowing a longer path of advance for our infantry, the great German fortress of La Bassée might have been assailed from the rear. As it was, our men, though stopped at the height east of the village, Neuve Chapelle against all counter-attacks, and advanced more northward towards Lille and upset the entire plans of the Kaiser and his Chief of Staff. A council of war had to be held at Lille to decide whether troops should be drawn from Russia to strengthen the German line in France and Flanders.

General Joffre had imposed his will upon his opponents, and his Staff made a most remarkable statement. ''At a given time and at a given place we can do what we will,". they said.


as seen by a British magazine


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