Wednesday 10 March 1915 – We Lost 1,427
The first British offensive battle worthy of the name will illustrate the repeated experience of the next three years. Neuve Chapelle a relatively minor affair, by comparison with what will happen in the years to come. The attack is to be carried out by IV Corps (Lieutenant General ‘Sir’ Henry Rawlinson of the First Army). Tactically, strategically, and psychologically there are good reasons for attacking at Neuve Chapelle, sufficient to outweigh in the mind of Field Marshall ‘Sir’ John French the reasons for not doing so. The First Army’s line runs through the water logged meadows of the Lys valley, dominated to the east by the Aubers Ridge, only 40 feet high, but nevertheless offering drier ground and observation over the flat lands for many miles in all directions. The village of Neuve Chapelle, captured by the Germans in October 1914, lays in a salient about 2,000 yards across, giving the opportunity of converging fire; the Ridge lays only a mile beyond the village. The temptations are obvious and only a little further lays the strategic prize of Lille. Finally, there is the psychological bait; the very evident facts that the Germans have an undoubted sense of superiority on the British front (following disastrous attempts to advance without proper equipment or preparations in December) and that the French clearly regard the BEF as ‘second class citizens’ for all offensive purposes. The combination of these arguments overbear the critical circumstances that even with a better flow of equipment (especially artillery) the BEF still has no capacity for a sustained offensive effort without French help, and that such help will not be forthcoming.
So Neuve Chapelle will be a British battle a test of British ability to wage offensive war and the British still have a great deal to learn. Haig has two ideas firmly in mind from the start. The essential need for surprise and, as he tells Rawlinson, that ‘success depends upon methodical preparation’. Such is the British ignorance of these matters at this stage that even from an officer who will later play as distinguished a part in the war as Rawlinson, he has great difficulty in extracting a plan at all. And when one does appear, it proposes to take two days to capture of Neuve Chapelle, which means, as Haig remarks, that ‘there would be no element of surprise on the second day, but the enemy would be ready for us’. Bit by bit, however, a plan is worked out. The surprise element (which also has the advantage of being economical of still scarce ammunition: is a ‘hurricane’ bombardment of only 35 minutes duration, using the unprecedented number of 66 heavy guns more than the whole BEF possessed in the first battle of Ypres. Still over two years off are such deployments as the Second Army’s 819 heavy guns and howitzers at the battle of Messines, or the Fifth Army’s 752 for ‘Third Ypres’.
Nevertheless, the artillery contribution to Neuve Chapelle offers a strong hint of things to come as does many other things. Haig insists that every man must know exactly what his duty is, accordingly, officers familiarize themselves with the ground over which they will attack and the assaulting infantry are rehearsed in their tasks standard drill later, but this is the first time. ‘Forming up trenches’ are dug, and dummy trenches for deception; advanced ammunition and supply depots (dumps) are established; roads are improved for battle traffic and a light railway laid down. All these are ‘firsts’. So too is the issuing of artillery timetables, giving each battery its exact targets for each stage of the action, a most important innovation. Gun platforms are devised to give stability in the soft muddy ground. Aerial photographs build a map showing the network of German trenches the novelty of this is indicated by the fact that efficient air cameras did not arrive until February. Each of the two corps involved receives 1,500 copies of this map. Secrecy is carefully preserved in all the preparations. To exploit a success, five divisions of cavalry are brought up behind the offensive front; this also will continue to be standard procedure.
The British bombardment opens, with an exhilarating crash at 07:30 from three hundred forty-two guns on the German trenches, the artillery fire being directed in part by eighty-five reconnaissance aircraft. More shells are fired in this short opening barrage than in the entire South African War, an indication of the terrifying transformation of the nature of war within a period of fifteen years. At 08:05 the British and Indian divisions attack along an 8,300 yard front thousands of the advancing troops carrying maps of the terrain they are advancing over created from information provided by the Royal Flying Corps. The Royal Flying Corps order of battle for Neuve Chapelle lists eleven types of aircraft, but among these only two are rudimentary scouts. The Martinsyde Scout’s and SE2’s perform this function along with a single Vickers FB5 fighter. The British air units that have been assembled are 2nd, 3rd and 16th Squadron of 1st Wing; 5th and 6th Squadron of 2nd Wing and 1st and 4th Squadron of 3rd Wing. One aircraft of 6th Squadron attacks a German troop train at Courtrai railway station. Captain Louis Arbon Strange silences a sentry at the station with a hand grenade and then kills or wounds seventy-five Germans when he bombs the train.
At the center of the attack, after three hours of often hand to hand fighting, Neuve Chapelle is captured and four lines of German trenches over run. Only on the flanks are there serious difficulties. In the northern sector, nearest to Aubers, a 400 yard length of German front line is not bombarded. The guns allocated to this sector have not reached the front in time to take part in the attack. The men who advance in this sector in three successive waves cross No-Man’s Land towards an intact German wire. It is first thought that the attack succeeds in reaching the German trenches as no one behind can see and not a man returns. In fact, almost every one of the attackers, almost a thousand men, has been killed. The chain of command during the battle of Neuve Chapelle is such that considerable time was taken to ascertain what should be done at each stage of the fighting. Telephone lines having been cut by German shell-fire, messages, often long winded and sometimes unclear have to be sent by messenger. Sometimes crucial messages cross in mid-journey, requiring new messages and creating an added muddle. Errors in intelligence are made: the initial German strength is overrated, and the German position in certain areas is exaggerated. The battle will continue for three days, but almost all the ground is won in the first three hours of this day.
The Germans first use gas shells on the western front at Neuve Chapelle, but in the smoke and general stench it is not noticed.
Private William Buckingham (Leicestershire Regiment) is awarded the Victoria Cross for conspicuous acts of bravery and devotion to duty in rescuing and rendering aid to the wounded while exposed to heavy fire especially at Neuve Chapelle today and the next two days.
Rifleman Gobar Singh Negi (Garwhal Rifles) is awarded the Victoria Cross for most conspicuous bravery at Neuve Chapelle. During our attack on the German position he is one of a bayonet party with bombs who enters their main trench and is the first man to go round each traverse driving back the enemy until they are eventually forced to surrender. He is killed during this engagement.
Captain F P Nosworthy (Sappers & Miners) is awarded the Military Cross for conspicuous ability and gallantry during the campaign especially at Neuve Chapelle on this and the following two days, when he shows marked coolness and initiative under heavy close range fire while constructing barricades.
The German submarine U-12 is rammed and sunk by the destroyer HMS Ariel off the Aberdeen coast.
The Dardanelles bombardment is renewed as the weather improves. Roger Keyes calls for volunteers from the regular Navy, and offers the civilian crews of minesweepers a bonus if they will go in this night. Keyes himself goes in with the front flotilla under the cover of darkness. Five searchlights burst out at them directly as they enter the straits and the battleship Canopus, following behind, opens fire. Turkish fire proves too much for the minesweepers. Four of the six pass over the minefield below Chanak without getting their kites down and one of the remaining two strikes a mine and blows up. For a time a tremendous fire pours down on the survivors, and it is astonishing thing that, with so many mines cut loose and drifting about in the darkness, only two men are wounded before the flotilla gets away.
Today’s losses include:
- A Victoria Cross Winner
- The Vice President of the Berkemsted Cricket Club
- A battalion commander
- The son of a General
- The son of an Admiral
- Multiple families that will lose a total or 2 or 3 sons in the Great War
- Two sons of Barons
- Multiple sons of clergy
- The son of a jurist
Today’s highlighted casualties are
- Lieutenant Colonel Wilfrid Marryat Bliss (commanding 2nd Cameronians) is killed at age 49.
- Major Ernest De Lannoy Hayes (Cameronians) is killed in action at age 45. He is the son of the late Admiral Montagu Hayes.
- Major Percy George Rigby (British Columbia Regiment) is killed at age 43. He is the son of Major General Christopher Palmer Rigby.
- Captain Cecil Gerald Wyatt Peake (Lincolnshire Regiment) is killed in action at age 23. He has two brothers who will be killed later in the Great War.
- Captain and Adjutant Walter Bruce Gray-Buchanan (Cameronians) is killed in action at age 29. His brother will be killed in May of this year.
- Captain Eric Piers Shakerley (King’s Royal Rifle Corps) is killed in action at age 30. He is the first of three sons of Geoffrey Joseph to be killed in the Great War.
- Captain Henry Leslie Homan (Middlesex Regiment) is killed at age 36. He is the son of the Reverend Canon Homan.
- Captain Harry Robert Sauve Pulman (London Regiment) is killed at age 47 when he is shot three times during a bayonet charge. He is a Vice President of Berkhamsted Cricket Club.
- Lieutenant ‘the Honorable’ John De Blaquiere (Cameronians) is killed in action at age 25. He is the son of the 6th Baron and dies two years before his younger brother is killed in action in 1917.
- Lieutenant John Patrick Bibby (Cameronians) is killed in action at age 22. His younger brother will be killed in July 1916 serving in the same regiment.
- Lieutenant Arthur William Wylie (Lincolnshire Regiment) is killed in action at age 22. He is the son of the Right Honorable Mr. Justice Wylie.
- Lieutenant Arthur Carr-Glyn Lonsdale (King’s Royal Rifle Corps) is killed in action at age 23. He is the son of the Reverend J H Lonsdale, a scholar at Eton and Radley and an undergraduate of Trinity College.
- Lieutenant ‘the Honorable’ Howard Carew Stonor (Bedfordshire Regiment attached South Staffordshire Regiment) is killed at age 21. He is the son of the 4th Baron Camoys.
- Lieutenant Thomas Hylton Madden (Liverpool Regiment) is killed at age 18. He is the son of the Venerable Archdeacon Thomas John Madden of Liverpool.
- Lieutenant H G Mathieson (London Regiment) is killed on his 27th Second Lieutenant Mark Gillham Windsor (Devonshire Regiment) is killed at a dressing station by a shell after being wounded at age 24. His brother will be killed in June.
- Second Lieutenant Maurice Victor Beningfield (Worcestershire Regiment) is killed at age 17. His brother will die of wounds next month.
- Second Lieutenant Evan Amyas Alfred Hare (Middlesex Regiment) is killed at age 27. His brother will be killed next September.
- Sergeant Wilfred Henry Denham (Devonshire Regiment) is killed at age 26. His brother will be killed in October 1918.
- Sergeant Michael Fagan (Liverpool Regiment) is killed at age 32. He is the first of three brothers who will lose their lives in the Great War.
- Sergeant Alick Cowper (Royal Engineers) is killed at age 21. He has two brothers who will be killed later in the Great War.
- Lance Corporal Alex McAdie (Seaforth Highlanders) is killed at age 19. His brother will die of wounds in January 1917.
- Private William Murray (Gordon Highlanders) is killed. His brother will be killed in less than one month.
- Private Alec Frederick Conroy (Liverpool Regiment) is killed at age 19. His brother will be killed in September of this year.
- Private Sidney Francis Harry Gigg (Devonshire Regiment) is killed. His brother will be killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.
- Private William Henry Beer (Devonshire Regiment) is killed at age 22. His brother was killed on HMS Monmouth last year.
- Private Bartlett William Heath (Berkshire Regiment) is killed at age 27. His brother was killed in November 1914.