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Neuve Chapelle


* Dates:  10 to 13 March 1915 

* Background:  By the end of 1914, there existed a complete stalemate along the British sector of the Western Front. London was alarmed at reports of a large transfer of German troops from the relative quiet of the West to the Eastern Front where the possibility of a decisive German victory over the ill-equipped Russians loomed large. The British were thus motivated to plan an offensive which would keep German forces occupied in the West and would possibly serve as a morale booster for the increasingly disillusioned BEF. France was also interested in a joint  offensive chiefly because of concerns that the Western stalemate could prompt the transfer of British troops to other theaters, such as the Balkans or Turkey. Several British troops had already been transferred to Gallipoli. The Allies hoped to retake the German salient, located just south of the Lys River and west of the strategic town of Lille, and more importantly, possibly recapture German-controlled rail lines running laterally through the Douai plain.

BEF First Army commander Haig drafted a plan for an offensive with the La Bassee-Aubers Ridge as the prime objective. Haig considered the recapture of the town of Lille to be an essential prelude to any major advance within the Brit sector. In Flanders, BEF soldiers were also bogged down in low, water-logged trenches, making a move to higher ground very tempting. Apart from a small amount of French artillery support, the proposed joint French-British offensive ended up becoming solely a BEF action.

von Claer


* The Germans:  Silesian general of infantry von Claer had replaced Karl von Einem as VII. Corps commander in early September 1914. Subordinate to the Rupprecht's Sixth Army, von Claer had elements from three infantry divisions, a Jaeger regiment and a couple heavy artillery regiments under his command at Neuve Chapelle. Another two infantry brigades were borrowed from other army corps as the battle progressed.

The total number of German soldiers immediately opposing the initial BEF attack at Neuve Chapelle numbered about 1,400, approximately six companies, but von Claer was able to rush in over 15,000 reinforcement troops as the BEF assault stalled.


VII. Corps

  Gen.d.Inf  Eberhard von Claer
   13th Inf.Div   Genlt. Kurt von dem Borne
25th Inf Bde  (Rgts 13 & 158) - not engaged
    26th Inf
Bde  (Rgts 15 & 55)
   13th Field Arty  Bde  (FA Rgts 22 & 58)
   14th Inf.Div   Genmaj. Ditfurth
27th Inf Bde  (Rgts 16 & 53) - not engaged
   79th Inf Bde  (Rgts 56 & 57)
   14th Field Arty  Bde  (FA Rgts 7 & 43)
   6th Bav.ResDiv   Genlt. Ritter von Gyssling
   12th Bavarian Res Inf Bde
   14th Bavarian Res Inf
   Bavarian Res Field Arty Rgt Nr 6
  *added 13 Mar    42nd Inf Bde  (from XVIII. Corps)
   86th Res Inf
Bde  (from XIX. Corps)


* The Battle:  Prior to the battle, the Royal Flying Corps provided the BEF with excellent aerial photo reconnaissance. At 0730 on 10 March, 350 pieces of BEF artillery commenced with a 35-minute concentrated artillery preparation, a "hurricane bombardment," along a two-mile front of the Neuve Chapelle salient. Taking von Claer's troops completely by surprise with this new approach, the BEF then began what was the war's first attack from out of the trenches. The German defensive tactics revolved around the second defensive line. They would hold the front line very lightly, relying on machine gun fire and artillery support to break up the attack. Should there be a successful breakthrough, they hoped to hold at the second line where reinforcements would be directed. While the first wave of attack was successful (the village of Neuve Chapelle was reoccupied), the British failed to take out a small section of German trenches to the northeast, a garrison which was manned by two machine gun companies of the 11th Jaeger Battalion. These guns lacerated BEF assault troops and, although the garrison was later bombed into submission, by 0930 German reserve units had moved onto the line...after this point, prospects for a complete allied victory was never great.

During that first night, the Germans successfully shored up their line of second defense against further attacks. Von Claer also intended to launch a counter-attack the next day, but the needed reserves could not be brought up quickly enough. On the morning of the 11th, German strength consisted of 20 battalions: four holding the new defensive line, 12 holding Aubers Ridge as reserves, and four Saxon battalions borrowed from XIX. Corps had assembled for the counterattack.

At 0430 on the 12th, German artillery opened up, with a four-pronged infantry assault soon pouring out of the trenches. Although a fog allowed the Germans to get within 50 meters of British lines before even being spotted, they were eventually driven back with heavy losses. Further skirmishing throughout the next couple days (official German history has the battle ending on 14 March) resulted in no net gains for either side. German casualties numbered approximately 12,000 with about 1,200 prisoners. Although they had lost their first line of defense, the Germans considered Neuve Chapelle a victory because of their success at holding their second line of defense and withstanding further British attacks after the initial breakthrough. London considered Neuve Chapelle a victory as well, although their main objective of breaking through to Lille and disrupting German lines of communication was not achieved.

Although the engagement at Neuve Chapelle was of relatively minor strategic importance, there were a few interesting issues which later came into play as both sides stumbled through the remaining years of the war:
     *  The difficulty of using cavalry troops in modern battle.
     *  The difficulty in bringing up adequate reinforcements.
     *  The importance of artillery observation points.
     *  The difficulty in achieving effective command and control on the battlefield with communications
        usually dependant on runners. Several times during the battle, British infantry would make a 
        breakthrough, but then communications would break down and troops would have to wait for 
        their own artillery support to cease fire.
     *  The success achieved by the BEF's initial artillery bombardment was not recognized until near 
        the end of the war. Allied commanders believed that the bombing was effective due to the degree 
        of intensity, when it was actually due to the element of surprise - the short time span between 
        initial bombardment and the following infantry assault.
     *  Perhaps most importantly, this battle planted in the mind of General Haig the seeds of what was
        to become the Somme Offensive in 1916.

* click to enlarge