Neuve Chapelle and War in Blood-Soaked Trenches
( Originally Published 1918 )
AFTER the immortal stand of Joffre at the first battle of the Marne and the sudden savage thrust at the German center which sent von Kluck and his men reeling back in retreat to the prepared defenses along the line of the Aisne, the war in the western theater resolved itself into a play for position from deep intrenchments. Occasionally would come a sudden big push by one side or the other in which artillery was massed until hub touched hub and infantry swept to glory and death in waves of gray, or blue or khaki as the case might be. But these tremendous efforts and consequent slaughters did not change the long battle line from the Alps to the North Sea materially. Here and there a bulge would be made by the terrific pressure of men and material in some great assault like that first push of the British at Neuve Chapelle, like the German attack at Verdun or like the tremendous efforts by both sides on that bloodiest of all battlefields, the Somme.
Neuve Chapelle deserves particular mention as the test in which the British soldiers demonstrated their might in equal contest against the enemy. There had been a disposition in England as elsewhere up to that time to rate the Germans as supermen, to exalt the potency of the scientific equipment with which the German army had taken the field. When the battle of Neuve Chapelle had been fought, al-though its losses were heavy, there was no longer any doubt in the British nation that victory was only a question of time.
The action came as a pendant to the attack by General de Langle de Cary's French army during February, 1915, at Perthes, that had been a steady relentless pressure by artillery and infantry upon a strong German position. To meet it heavy reinforcements had been shifted by the Germans from the trenches between La Bassée and Lille. The earth-works at Neuve Chapelle had been particularly depleted and only a comparatively small body of Saxons and Bavarians defended them. Opposite this body was the first British army. The German intrenchments at Neuve Chapelle surrounded and defended the highlands upon which were placed the German batteries and in their turn defended the road towards Lille, Roubaix and Turcoing.
The task assigned to Sir John French was to make an assault with only forty-eight thou-sand men on a comparatively narrow front. There was only one practicable method for effective preparation, and this was chosen by the British general. An artillery concentration absolutely unprecedented up to that time was employed by him. Field pieces firing at point-blank range were used to cut the barbed wire entanglements defending the enemy entrenchments, while howitzers and bombing airplanes were used to drop' high explosives into the defenseless earthworks.
Sir Douglas Haig, later to become the commander-in-chief of the British forces, was in command of the first army. Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien commanded the second army. It was the first army that bore the brunt of the attack.
No engagement during the years on the western front was more sudden and surprising in its onset than that drive of the British against Neuve Chapelle. At seven o'clock on the morning of Wednesday, March 10, 1915, the British artillery was lazily engaged in lobbing over a desultory shell fire upon the German trenches. It was the usual breakfast appetizer, and nobody on the German side took any unusual notice of it. Really, however, the shelling was scientific "bracketing" of the enemy's important position. The gunners were making sure of their ranges.
At 7.30 range finding ended, and with a roar that shook the earth the most destructive and withering artillery action of the war up to that time was on. Field pieces sending their shells hurtling only a few feet above the earth tore the wire emplacements of the enemy to pieces and made kindling wood of the supports. Howitzers sent high explosive shells, containing lyddite, of 15-inch, 9.2-inch and 6-inch caliber into the doomed trenches and later into the ruined village. It was eight o'clock in the morning, one-half hour after the beginning of the artillery action, that the village was bombarded. During this time British soldiers were enabled to walk about in No Man's Land behind the curtain of fire with absolute immunity. No German rifleman or machine gunner left cover. The scene on the German side of the line was like that upon the blasted surface of the moon, pock-marked with shell holes, and with no trace of human life to be seen above ground.
An eye witness describing the scene said:
"The dawn, which broke reluctantly through a veil of clouds on the morning of Wednesday, March 10, 1915, seemed as any other to the Germans behind the white and blue sandbags in their long line of trenches curving in a hemicycle about the battered village of Neuve Chapelle. For five months they had remained undisputed masters of the positions they had here wrested from the British in October. Ensconced in their comfortably-arranged trenches with but a thin outpost in their fire trenches, they had watched day succeed day and night succeed night without the least variation from the monotony of trench warfare, the intermittent bark of the machine guns—rat-tat-tat-tattat—and the perpetual rattle of rifle fire, with here and there a bomb, and now and then an exploded mine.
"For weeks past the German airmen had grown strangely shy. On this Wednesday morning none were aloft to spy out the strange doings which, as dawn broke, might have been descried on the desolate roads behind the British lines.
"From ten o'clock of the preceding evening endless files of men marched silently down the roads leading towards the German positions through Laventie and Richebourg St. Vaast, poor shattered villages of the dead where months of incessant bombardment have driven away the last inhabitants and left roofless houses and rent roadways. . .
"Two days before, a quiet room, where Nelson's Prayer stands on the mantel-shelf, saw the ripening of the plans that sent these sturdy sons of Britain's four kingdoms marching all through the night. Sir John French met the army corps commanders and unfolded to them his plans for the offensive of the British army against the German line at Neuve Chapelle.
"The onslaught was to be a surprise. That was its essence. The Germans were to be battered with artillery, then rushed before they recovered their wits. We had thirty-six clear hours before us. Thus long, it was reckoned (with complete accuracy as afterwards appeared), must elapse before the Germans, whose line before us had been weakened, could rush up reinforcements. To ensure the enemy's being pinned down right and left of the `great push,' an attack was to be delivered north and south of the main thrust simultaneously with the assault on Neuve Chapelle."
After describing the impatience of the British soldiers as they awaited the signal to open the attack, and the actual beginning of the engagement, the narrator continues:
"Then hell broke loose. With a mighty, hideous, screeching burst of noise, hundreds of guns spoke. The men in the front trenches were deafened by the sharp reports of the field-guns spitting out their shells at close range to cut through the Germans' barbed wire entanglements. In some cases the trajectory of these vicious missiles was so flat that they passed only a few feet above the British trenches.
"The din was continuous. An officer who had the curious idea of putting his ear to the ground said it was as though the earth were being smitten great blows with a Titan's hammer. After the first few shells had plunged screaming amid clouds of earth and dust into the German trenches, a dense pall of smoke hung over the German lines. The sickening fumes of lyddite blew back into the British trenches. In some places the troops were smothered in earth and dust or even spattered with blood from the hideous fragments of human bodies that went hurtling through the air. At one point the upper half of a German officer, his cap crammed on his head, was blown into one of our trenches.
"Words will never convey any adequate idea of the horror of those five and thirty minutes. When the hands of officers' watches pointed to five minutes past eight, whistles resounded along the British lines. At the same moment the shells began to burst farther ahead, for, by previous arrangement, the gunners, lengthening their fuses, were `lifting' on to the village of Neuve Chapelle so as to leave the road open for our infantry to rush in and finish what the guns had begun.
"The shells were now falling thick among the houses of Neuve Chapelle, a confused mass of buildings seen reddish through the pillars of smoke and flying earth and dust. At the sound of the whistle—alas for the bugle, once the herald of victory, now banished from the fray I—our men scrambled out of the trenches and hurried higgledy-piggledy into the open. Their officers were in front. Many, wearing overcoats and carrying rifles with fixed bayonets, closely resembled their men.
"It was from the center of our attacking line that the assault was pressed home soonest. The guns had done their work well. The trenches were blown to irrecognizable pits dotted with dead. The barbed wire had been cut like so much twine. Starting from the Rue Tilleloy the Lincolns and the Berkshires were off the mark first, with orders to swerve to right and left respectively as soon as they had captured the first line of trenches, in order to let the Royal Irish Rifles and the Rifle Brigade through to the village. The Germans left alive in the trenches, half demented with fright, surrounded by a welter of dead and dying men, mostly surrendered. The Berkshires were opposed with the utmost gallantry by two German officers who had remained alone in a trench serving a machine gun. But the lads from Berkshire made their way into that trench and bayoneted the Germans where they stood, fighting to the last. The Lincolns, against desperate resistance, eventually occupied their section of the trench and then waited for the Irishmen and the Rifle Brigade to come and take the village ahead of them. Meanwhile the second Thirty-ninth Garhwalis on the right had taken their trenches with a rush and were away towards the village and the Biez Wood.
"Things had moved so fast that by the time the troops were ready to advance against the village the artillery had not finished its work. So, while the Lincolns and the Berks assembled the prisoners who were trooping out of the trenches in all directions, the infantry on whom devolved the honor of capturing the village, waited. One saw them standing out in the open, laughing and cracking jokes amid the terrific din made by the huge howitzer shells screeching overhead and bursting in the village, the rattle of machine guns all along the line, and the popping of rifles. Over to the right where the Garhwalis had been working with the bayonet, men were shouting hoarsely and wounded were groaning as the stretcher-bearers, all heedless of bullets, moved swiftly to and fro over the shell-torn ground.
"There was bloody work in the village of Neuve Chapelle. The capture of a place at the bayonet point is generally a grim business, in which instant, unconditional surrender is the only means by which bloodshed, a deal of bloodshed, can be prevented. If there is individual resistance here and there the attacking troops cannot discriminate. They must go through, slaying as they go such as oppose them (the Germans have a monopoly of the finishing-off of wounded men), otherwise the enemy's resistance would not be broken, and the assailants would be sniped and enfiladed from hastily prepared strongholds at half a dozen different points.
"The village was a sight that the men say they will never forget. It looked as if an earthquake had struck it. The published photographs do not give any idea of the in-describable mass of ruins to which our guns reduced it. The chaos is so utter that the very line of the streets is all but obliterated.
"It was indeed a scene of desolation into which the Rifle Brigade—the first regiment to enter the village, I believe—raced headlong. Of the church only the bare shell remained, the interior lost to view beneath a gigantic mound of débris. The little churchyard was devastated, the very dead plucked from their graves, broken coffins and ancient bones scattered about amid the fresher dead, the slain of that morning-gray-green forms asprawl athwart the tombs. Of all that once fair village but two things remained intact-two great crucifixes reared aloft, one in the churchyard, the other over against the château. From the cross, that is the emblem of our faith, the figure of Christ, yet intact though all pitted with bullet marks, looked down in mute agony on the slain in the village.
"The din and confusion were indescribable. Through the thick pall of shell smoke Germans were seen on all sides, some emerging half dazed from cellars and dugouts, their hands above their heads, others dodging round the shattered houses, others firing from the windows, from behind carts, even from behind the overturned tombstones. Machine guns were firing from the houses on the outskirts, rapping out their nerve-racking note above the noise of the rifles.
"Just outside the village there was a scene of tremendous enthusiasm. The Rifle Brigade, smeared with dust and blood, fell in with the Third Gurkhas with whom they had been brigaded in India. The little brown men were dirty but radiant. Kukri in hand they had very thoroughly gone through some houses at the cross-roads on the Rue du Bois and silenced a party of Germans who were making themselves a nuisance there with some machine guns. Riflemen and Gurkhas cheered themselves hoarse."
Unfortunately for the complete success of the brilliant attack a great delay was caused by the failure of the artillery that was to have cleared the barbed wire entanglements for the Twenty-third Brigade, and because of the un-looked for destruction of the British field telephone system by shell and rifle fire. The check of the Twenty-third Brigade banked other commands back of it, and the Twenty-fifth Brigade was obliged to fight at right angles to the line of battle. The Germans quickly rallied at these points, and took a terrific toll in British lives. Particularly was this true at three specially strong German positions. One called Port Arthur by the British, another at Pietre Mill and the third was the fortified bridge over Des Layes Creek.
Because of the lack of telephone communication it was impossible to send reinforcements to the troops that had been held up by barbed wire and other emplacements and upon which German machine guns were pouring a steady stream of death.
As the Twenty-third Brigade had been held up by unbroken barbed wire northwest of Neuve Chapelle, so the Seventh Division of the Fourth Corps was also checked in its action against the ridge of Aubers on the left of Neuve Chapelle. Under the plan of Sir Douglas Haig the Seventh Division was to have waited until the Eighth Division had reached Neuve Chapelle, when it was to charge through Aubers. With the tragic mistake that cost the Twenty-third Brigade so dearly, the plan affecting the Seventh Division went awry. The German artillery, observing the concentration of the Seventh Division opposite Aubers, opened a vigorous fire upon that front. During the afternoon General Haig ordered a charge upon the German positions. The advance was made in short rushes in the face of a fire that seemed to blaze from an inferno. Inch by inch the ground was drenched with British blood. At 5.30 in the afternoon the men dug themselves in under the relentless German fire. Further advance became impossible.
The night was one of horror. Every minute the men were under heavy bombardment. At dawn on March 11th the dauntless British infantry rushed from the trenches in an effort to carry Aubers, but the enemy artillery now greatly reinforced made that task an impossible one. The trenches occupied by the British forces were consolidated and the salient made by the push was held by the British with bulldog tenacity.
The number of men employed in the action on the British side was forty-eight thousand. During the early surprise of the action the loss was slight. Had the wire in front of the Twenty-third Brigade been cut by the artillery assigned to such action, and had the telephone system not been destroyed the success of the thrust would have been complete. The delay of four and a half hours between the first and second phases of the attack caused virtually all the losses sustained by the attacking force. The total casualties were 12,811 men of the British forces. Of . these 1,751 officers and privates were taken prisoners and 10,000 officers and men were killed and wounded.
The action continued throughout Thursday, March 11th, with little change in the general situation. The British still held Neuve Chapelle and their intrenchments threatened Aubers. On Friday morning, March 12th, the Crown Prince of Bavaria made a desperate attempt under cover of a heavy fog to recapture the village. The effort was made in characteristic German dense formations. The Westphalian and Bavarian troops came out of Biez Wood in waves of gray-green, only to be blown to pieces by British guns already loaded and laid on the mark. Elsewhere the British waited until the Germans were scarcely more than fifty paces away when they opened with deadly rapid fire before which the German waves melted like snow before steam. It was such slaughter as the British had experienced when held up before Aubers. Slaughter that staggered Germany.
So ended Neuve Chapelle, a battle in which the decision rested with the British, a victory for which a fearful price had been paid but out of which came a confidence that was to hearten the British nation and to put sinews of steel into the British army for the dread days to come.
The story of Neuve Chapelle was repeated in large and in miniature many times during the deadlock of trench warfare on the western front until victory finally came to the Allies. During those years the western battle front lay like a wounded snake across France and Belgium. It writhed and twisted, now this way, now that, as one side or the other gambled with men and shells and airplanes for some brief advantage. It bent back in a great bulge when von Hindenburg made his famous re-treat in the winter of 1916 after the Allies had pressed heavily against the Teutonic front upon the ghastly field of the Somme. The record is one of great value to military strategists, to the layman it is only a succession of artillery barrages, of gas attacks, of aerial reconnaissances and combats.
One day grew to be very much like another in that deadlock of pythons. A play for position here was met by a counter-thrust in an-other place. German inventions were out-matched and outnumbered by those coming from the Allied side.
Trench warfare became the daily life of the men. They learned to fight and live in the open. The power of human adaptation to abnormal conditions was never better exemplified than in those weary, dreary years on the western front.
The fighting-lines consisted generally of one, two, or three lines of shelter-trenches lying parallel, measuring twenty or twenty-five inches in width, and varying in length according to the number they hold; the trenches were joined together by zigzag approaches and by a line of reinforced trenches (armed with ma-chine guns), which were almost completely proof against rifle, machine gun, or gun fire. The ordinary German trenches were almost in-visible from 350 yards away, a distance which permitted a very deadly fire. It is easy to realize that if the enemy occupied three successive lines and a line of reinforced entrenchments, the attacking line was likely, at the lowest estimate, to be decimated during an advance of 350 yards—by rifle fire at a range of 350 yards' distance, and by the extremely quick fire of the machine guns, each of which delivered from 300 to 600 bullets a minute with absolute precision. In the field-trench, a soldier enjoyed far greater security than he would if' merely prone behind his knapsack in an excavation barely fifteen inches deep. He had merely to stoop down a little to disappear below the level of the ground and be immune from infantry fire; moreover, his machine guns fired without endangering him. In addition, this stooping position brought the man's knapsack on a level with his helmet, thus forming some protection against shrapnel and shell-splinters.
At the back of the German trenches shelters were dug for non-commissioned officers and for the commander of the unit.
Ever since the outbreak of the war, the French troops in Lorraine, after severe experiences, realized rapidly the advantages of the German trenches, and began to study those they had taken gloriously. Officers, non-commissioned officers, and men of the engineers were straightway detached in every unit to teach the infantry how to construct similar shelters. The education was quick, and very soon they had completed the work necessary for the protection of all. The tools of the enemy "casualties," the spades and picks left behind in deserted villages, were all gladly piled on to the French soldiers' knapsacks, to be carried willingly by the very men who used to grumble at being loaded with even the smallest regulation tool. As soon as night had set in on the occasion of a lull in the fighting, the digging of the trenches was begun. Sometimes, in the darkness, the men of each fighting nation—less than 500 yards away from their enemy—would hear the noise of the workers of the foe: the sounds of picks and axes; the officers' words of encouragement; and tacitly they would agree to an armistice during which to dig shelters from which, in the morning, they would dash out, to fight once more.
Commodious, indeed, were some of the trench barracks. One French soldier wrote:
"In really up-to-date intrenchments you may find kitchens, dining-rooms, bedrooms, and even stables. One regiment has first class cow-sheds. One day a whimsical 'piou-piou,' finding a cow wandering about in the danger zone, had the bright idea of finding shelter for it in the trenches. The example was quickly followed, and at this moment the —th Infantry possess an underground farm, in which fat kine, well cared for, give such quantities of milk that regular distributions of butter are being made—and very good butter, too."
But this is not all. An officer writes home a tale of yet another one of the comforts of home added to the equipment of the trenches:
"We are clean people here. Thanks to the ingenuity of , we are able to take a warm bath every day from ten to twelve. We call this teasing the 'boches,' for this bathing-establishment of the latest type is fitted up—would you believe it?—in the trenches!"
Describing trenches occupied by the British in their protracted "siege-warfare" in North-ern France along and to the north of the Aisne Valley, a British officer wrote : "In the firing-line the men sleep and obtain shelter in the dugouts they have hollowed or `undercut' in the side of the trenches. These refuges are slightly raised above the bottom of the trench, so as to remain dry in wet weather. The floor of the trench is also sloped for purposes of draining. Some trenches are provided with bead-cover, and others with overhead cover, the latter, of course, giving protection from the weather as well as from shrapnel balls and splinters of shells.... At all points subject to shell-fire access to the firing-line from be-hind is provided by communication-trenches. These are now so good that it is possible to cross in safety the fire-swept zone to the advanced trenches from the billets in villages, the bivouacs in quarries, or the other places where the headquarters of units happen to be."
A cavalry subaltern gave the following ac-count of life in the trenches: "Picnicking in the open air, day and night (you never see a roof now), is the only real method of existence. There are loads of straw to bed down on, and everyone sleeps like a log, in turn, even with shrapnel bursting within fifty yards."
One English officer described the ravages of modern artillery fire, not only upon all men, animals and buildings within its zone, but upon the very face of nature itself: "In the trenches crouch lines of men, in brown or gray or blue, coated with mud, unshaven, hollow-eyed with the continual strain."
"The fighting is now taking place over ground where both sides have for weeks past been excavating in all directions," said another letter from the front, "until it has become a perfect labyrinth. A trench runs straight for a considerable distance, then it suddenly forks in three or four directions. One branch merely leads into a ditch full of water, used in drier weather as a means of communication; another ends abruptly in a cul-de-sac, probably an abandoned sap-head; the third winds on, leading into galleries and passages further for-ward.
"Sometimes where new ground is broken the spade turns up the long-buried dead, ghastly relics of former fights, and on all sides the surface of the earth is ploughed and furrowed by fragments of shell and bombs and distorted by mines. Seen from a distance, this apparently confused mass of passages, crossing and re-crossing one another, resembles an irregular gridiron.
"The life led by the infantry on both sides at close quarters is a strange, cramped existence, with death always near, either by means of some missile from above or some mine explosion from beneath—a life which has one dull, monotonous background of mud and water. Even when there is but little fighting the troops are kept hard at work strengthening the existing defenses, constructing others, and improvising the shelter imperative in such weather."