The Army Command had no idea that a golden opportunity had been missed. Reports were long delayed on the way to First Army headquarters and when they did arrive, scanty and incomplete, they gave no idea of the magnitude of the counter-attack, nor was it possible to assess the enemy’s numbers from scraps of information gleaned from isolated stretches of the front. But it was plain that the enemy had been brilliantly repulsed and heart-lifting news of prisoners surrendering en masse confirmed the impression that the enemy was demoralised and on the point of giving up the fight. Only the artillerymen were unhappy, still hampered by the mist and now frankly doubtful if the guns could be ranged with any hope of accuracy by mid-day when the bombardment was due to open.
Shortly after eleven General Rawlinson telephoned Sir Douglas Haig to pass on this disquieting news and discuss its implications. It was decided to take the risk and send troops forward as planned. But the plan was not altered in the slightest particular from the orders of the previous evening.
At long last the 2nd Rifle Brigade were to have their chance and they were to be in the vanguard of the attack moving forward with the Royal Irish Rifles to knock out the guns and the redoubt at the Layes Bridge. Forty-eight hours previously, when Colonel Stevens had begged to be allowed to assault that very objective, it had been manned by a skeleton force and was theirs for the taking. Now it was a bastion, and behind deep barricades of barbed wire fifteen machine-guns were poised to rake the battlefield. They could have held an army at bay and against them two Battalions had no chance at all. It was a sorry climax to the long impatient wait.
The first men to leave the trench were pulverised by a tornado of fire – from machine-guns at the Layes redoubt and the field guns behind it, from machine-guns and rifles in the new German trench. Even the guns behind the Bois du Biez, and the machine-guns in front of the wood itself were able to swing right and concentrate fire on the unfortunate riflemen, for the Indian Corps on their front was ordered to stand fast until the Layes Bridge redoubt was captured. Hardly a man survived to advance so much as fifty yards. Bullets whipped across the trench where the men of the next wave crouched low beneath the parapet, teeth clenched as the ground rocked, white knuckles clamped round rifles, waiting with fixed bayonets for the command that would send them over the top. They knew full well that it would be slaughter. The Colonel knew it too and, on his own responsibility, cancelled the attack.
As the artillery officers had feared, the noon bombardment that preceded the general attack was a disaster and on most of the front the troops failed to make any headway. But where it had succeeded, on the northern edge of the battle, the 7th Division did manage to advance the line and the Germans surrendered in droves. Some ground had been gained but beyond it the enemy fought back hard. The shelling reached a crescendo, movement was impossible and information dried up altogether. Desperate for news, the anxious British staff had to depend on reports from artillery observation officers trying to pierce the mist from positions of small advantage, and endeavouring as best they could to piece together what was happening out in front. The messages that got through to headquarters were long out of date and gave a completely false impression.
At one o’clock the welcome news that the Worcesters had captured part of the German defences near Mauquissart was received at First Army Headquarters to the satisfaction of Sir Douglas Haig. In the absence of other information he could have hardly have known that they had been forced out again and had been back on their old line for a full three hours. As staff officers pored eagerly over the battle-map, pinpointing the Worcesters’ supposed position, more news came through. Fourth Corps headquarters confirmed that the 7th Division had advanced and added, ‘Observation officer reports having seen British troops crossing the Mauquissart Road.’* That clinched it.
Sir Douglas Haig was an imperturbable soldier, but even his air of unruffled calm hinted at inner excitement, and the air of anxious speculation that had clouded the deliberations of his staff all morning was entirely swept away in moments. Haig was determined to take advantage of the promising situation. The attack must be pressed home and there was no time to be lost. Headquarters signallers, who had spent much of the day waiting for news or transmitting stern demands for information, were as busy now as their Commander could desire, tapping his order along the wires to the Corps and Divisional Commanders. ‘Information indicates that the enemy on our front are much demoralised. Indian Corps and IV Corps will push through the barrage of fire regardless of loss, using reserves if required.’ It was just after three o’clock and it would clearly take time before dispositions could be made and instructions passed on to the Battalion commanders at the front, but General Haig was optimistic.
In the light of the good news, he telephoned personally to Sir John French at GHQ and, with his agreement, ordered the 5th Cavalry Brigade to move forward into battle. Then, impatient of impotent waiting, and perhaps with the idea of stiffening his subordinate commanders with his own encouraging presence, he rode the five miles to Indian Corps headquarters at Marmuse. He looked at the map and listened courteously as Sir James Willcocks explained the failure of the Indian Corps and, jabbing his finger at the Layes redoubt, traced the line of fire that could not fail to catch his left in enfilade if his troops even attempted to advance. Haig understood his dilemma but, fired by the conviction that the line at Mauquissart had been breached, sure of his opinion that the Germans were on the verge of disarray, he impressed on Willcocks that a similar breakthrough at the opposite end of the line was the single factor that would break the enemy’s resistance and bring about his downfall. Even if Willcocks could not risk the left of his line, then the right must go forward without it and, if the whole of the Bois du Biez could not immediately be captured, they could take the southern part. He urged him to proceed with all possible speed, offered to bring up more cavalry to exploit the gap and, once they had passed through it and began to harass the enemy’s rear, the battle would be won and even the Layes redoubt would collapse as the enemy line crumbled. Such tactics were sound, the situation was crucial, and the moment, it seemed, was ripe.
General Rawlinson had also been on the move. As soon as he received Sir Douglas Haig’s signal he went first to 8th and then to 7th divisional headquarters to relay the orders in person and to stress to both divisions the urgency of carrying them out. It would necessarily be some hours before the Divisional Commanders would have made their dispositions, issued their instructions and passed them down to Battalions in the line. Before the troops went over, Rawlinson ordered, the Layes redoubt must be attacked and this time ‘at all costs’ it must be captured.
Capt. R. Berkeley, MC, Rifle Brig.
At 4 p.m. Colonel Stevens was sent for and ordered to make a second attack at 5.15 p.m. There was no opportunity to make
any plan. By the time he had reached his Battalion with the order it was nearly 5 p.m. and a small and inadequate artillery demonstration was already in progress. It was now the turn of C and D Companies. In the spirit of another famous Brigade, ‘Theirs not to reason why’, knowing that someone had blundered badly and knowing their task to be humanly impossible, they hurriedly formed up to obey orders.
Captain Bridgeman of C Company led his men headlong for the machine-guns on their left front. He reached the Smith-Dorrien trench and found himself with only Corporal Woolnough and Riflemen Rogers, Carbutt, and Jones left of those who had started with him. The rest of number eleven and twelve platoons had been shot down. Beyond Smith-Dorrien trench it was impossible to advance, even had there been anyone.
D Company on the right had an even more hopeless task. There was uncut wire in front of them – their own wire! Company Sergeant-Major Daniels and Corporal Noble rushed out with wire-cutters into the hail of bullets to make a passage by hand – they did so at the cost of Noble’s life. Lieutenant Mansel, the company commander, started out at the head of his men, and fell seriously wounded. Colonel Stevens, intervening once more, stopped the attack and at nightfall he recalled Captain Bridgeman and his party from Smith-Dorrien.*
Dusk fell quickly on that cloudy afternoon. It was quite dark by six o’clock – long before the troops could be reorganised and sent in to make the general advance Sir Douglas Haig so fervently desired, long before the ground could be reconnoitred, and long before final instructions could reach the weary soldiers waiting in the line. By seven o’clock mist had gathered beneath the low cloud, and the darkness thickened to pitchy black. Battalions groping forward to assembly positions lost their way and became hopelessly mixed up. The attacks were postponed, and postponed again. Finally they were cancelled.
The battle was over. They had captured Neuve Chapelle and in places north of the village the old line had crept forward by, at most, a thousand yards. In the last hour of the night, when the reliefs marched up to take over the trenches, the exhausted survivors had to be pummelled and kicked to their feet before they could be roused and marched out, dazed and staggering with fatigue.
There was no dawn that morning. The darkness gradually gave way to a strange yellow fog, thick with the fumes of lyddite that stung the eyes and burned the throat. Mercifully it shrouded the ground in front, so that the parties of stretcher-bearers could move freely in the open to search for any wounded who had survived the night. They prowled like phantoms in the gloom, picking their way through the carnage and the debris – the terrible litter of rifles torn from dead hands, ripped caps, German helmets, tatters of uniform, khaki and grey, the tumbled contents of pockets and haversacks, razors, pocket mirrors, photographs, smashed pipes and scraps of food, fragments of letters, tobacco pouches, crumpled packets of cigarettes. And everywhere distorted bodies, dead faces of livid yellow pallor staring blank-eyed into the yellow fog. Here and there a feeble movement caught a stretcher-bearer’s eye and another man was rescued before the fog began to thin and the German guns thundered out in anticipation of another attack.
L/cpl E. Hall.
For two days I carried the stretcher without a rest until at last I collapsed under the strain and had to rest for a few hours. How many men I carried I do not know, and the last few hours seemed like a dream, broken with the cries of the wounded.
My clothes were saturated with the blood of the men I bandaged and carried, and when I was finally relieved, I had to get a new suit from the quartermaster’s stores.
L/cpl W. Andrews.
I was stationed with my section to guard a pump at a brewery on the edge of Neuve Chapelle, and right beside it there was a notice-board still standing with just one word on it. It said ‘DANGER’. Nicholson laughed and laughed as if it was the greatest joke of the war! He couldn’t stop laughing. I was too tired to laugh. By that time I was absolutely stupid with fatigue and cold and the strain of it all.
Not all the troops had been relieved and those who were forced to remain until nightfall in the trenches passed a long and gruelling day under bombardments that were heavier than ever. They were not aware that the offensive was at an end and the enemy, no wiser than they were themselves, and still fearful of a new attack, pounded the British lines all day long. The British guns were firing back and the troops were kept on the alert, for it was perfectly possible that each German bombardment might mean a German counter-attack.
Already Sir Douglas Haig was in conference with his staff and his Corps Commanders outlining his plans for the next stage of the offensive. Now that they had lost the advantage of surprise it would be pointless to continue the campaign in the same sector but, once the troops had been re-shuffled (and more were expected any day) while the Germans were still disorganised (as they surely must be), they would launch a new British attack on another sector of the line and approach the Aubers Ridge from slightly further north. Sir Douglas Haig confidently expected to be ready in a matter of days. He ordered his Corps Commanders to prepare detailed plans and put forward his proposal for the sanction of the Commander-in-Chief.
It was true that there had been some unfortunate setbacks but, on the whole, Haig was not displeased with the outcome of the three days’ fighting. The British Army had shown that it could penetrate the invincible German defences and, with only a little more effort, the original objectives could surely be achieved.
Sir John French was at first inclined to agree, but when the artillery returns reached his headquarters at St Omer, he had an unpleasant shock. The expenditure of ammunition during the three days’ battle had been many times higher than the most extravagant estimate. It was the work of a moment to calculate that the ammunition available in reserve was not nearly enough to replace it and it was clear that there was no possibility of pursuing an offensive of any kind until supplies had been replenished and considerably augmented. In order to drive the point home, the Commander-in-Chief lost no time in dispatching a telegram to London, He did not beat around the bush: ‘Cessation of forward movement is necessitated today by the fatigue of the troops, and, above all, by the want of ammunition…’
Bdr. W. Kemp.
We signallers worked for seventy-two hours straight off and I was down and out at the finish. When the battle died away the battery had fired two hundred and forty rounds of 6-inch ammunition and we only had five rounds left between all four guns. They each kept one round ‘up the spout’ for three weeks, ready to give the Germans hell!
Tmptr. J. Naylor.
One of my jobs was to go up to the Battery Headquarters with dispatches and bring back the returns and I remember that day very well. I went up to one of the batteries and the Major said to me, ‘We’ve got—’ – I forget exactly how many rounds of ammunition they had per gun, but it was almost single figures. When I got back to headquarters the Colonel was talking to another battery commander who happened to be there, and he must have had a similar shortage of shells because the Colonel was saying to him that on no account was he to fire them except in a case of a really bad attack. I can’t remember what the Major said, but I remember the Colonel’s answer. He said, ‘Well, if the worst comes to the worst, you’ll just have to bloody well turn yourselves into infantry!’ I suppose it was a joke, but it really impressed me at the time. We were frightfully short of ammunition, but I don’t think it affected the morale at all. The British soldier is an extraordinary bloke and it takes a hell of a lot to get him down. I suppose we were worried but we always thought that something was going to happen that would put things right.
For many miles behind the line the narrow roads were stiff with traffic and the passage of many men. The reserves who had been stood down were moving back and reliefs were still moving up, for it had not been possible to relieve all the front-line troops in the early hours of the morning. Even the 4th Seaforths, who had got out the night before, were making slow, slow progress and they were still a long way from their destination.
Lt. C. Tennant.
What a road it was, blocked with traffic every two hundred yards, troops passing up to the front and ambulances passing down away from it. Progress was incredibly slow and in spite of the endless halts we were never able to get our packs off. Consequently the six miles seemed like sixteen and it was eleven o’clock before we got in. The men were billeted in the brewery and the officers were shown into a small cottage containing three very small and very lousy looking rooms full of dirty straw and filth. However a yard at the back provided a small barn full of clean straw and there we made ourselves fairly snug for the night. I rose at seven o’clock and after breakfast we paraded by companies for rifle inspection and checking of casualty rolls. Having heard several of the men repeating the old question ‘Why was all this waste made?’ I seized the occasion to check my platoon for the fault which I had been committing in thought myself ever since the action – namely criticising the wisdom of orders. But there was a well-deserved spoonful of jam administered with the pill, so they took the medicine well. The CO. detailed me to take a party of forty men back to Neuve Chapelle to check casualties’ kits as far as possible, but he countermanded this later, because the Germans were shelling all the roads very heavily all day and he didn’t want to risk men’s lives for the sake of dead men’s belongings. Rightly!
At 5.45 p.m. we marched off and after another incredibly tedious march – we were held up for over an hour by a blocked road – we reached our destination where we have the best billets we have had for many a long day. We arrived at nine o’clock without blankets or valises, as the transport had got hopelessly stuck up on the blocked road, but we were all tired enough to sleep anywhere, and after a good meal we turned in at 10.30 and had our first real sleep since Monday night. This was Saturday night. So ended our share of the week’s fighting.
At nightfall, as the Seaforths were thankfully nearing their billets and the prospect of food and rest, the remaining Battalions of the Indian Corps were at last preparing to move.
Capt. W. G. Bagot-Chester, MC.
At 5 p.m. we got news that we were to be relieved. Oh, how pleased we were! All my men bucked up, and started chattering away. One can have too much of a good thing! We hoped to go at dusk, but a message came to say that a German attack was expected, and we must remain for the time being. However, I got away at about 8 p.m. on being relieved by the HLI. Off I went with my men, pleased as could be, but I only got as far as brigade headquarters about a mile away when the General said he was very sorry but we had to stay in reserve to the Brigade which had taken over from us. This was rather hard after five days and nights, with not a wink of sleep for anyone, for all night we’d had to work at improving our trench and in the daytime it was almost impossible to sleep for the artillery bombardments and the fear of a German attack. However, there was nothing for it, so I explained the situation to the men and almost cried for pity for their disappointment. They took it very well, turned about without a word and marched back. No sooner had we got back to Battalion Headquarters than a staff officer came up, and said it was a mistake and we were no longer required. So, it was ‘about turn’ again and back we went at a snail’s pace, for we were all dead tired, and couldn’t walk straight. I halted at one place for water (the men had been short of it the whole time in the trench) and further on I halted again and gave the men an hour’s sleep on the roadside.
Capt. A. J. Agius, MC.
We were relieved on Saturday night. It was late and pitch dark and very muddy. We managed to get to Port Arthur through the debris and struggled down a trench. It was filled with Connaught Rangers coming up and we finally had to get out and try to go across country. It was dark country, strange country, with any number of hedges and ditches to get through, bullets and shells coming over, men fagged out and laden with heavy kit. The men couldn’t keep up. We finally struck a road, turned to our right and, thank God, at last got to Windy Corner – our rendezvous. We were the last out and they were all waiting for us. We had to wait some time trying to gather in stragglers. Before we arrived, Windy Corner had been shelled and my limber had bolted so I dumped spare ammunition in a house and off we trekked.
We marched for hours and hours. Every hour we lay down where we were in the middle of the road and slept for ten minutes – then on again. The men were awfully tired but full of buck and laden with loot, German helmets, etc. It was a perfect spring dawn and the peace of the Sunday morning was wonderful as we passed the Locon road. A lark sang. We finally got to our old billet at 6 a.m. only to find someone else in occupation! We waited some time for orders, and finally we were dispersed to our units. On we plunged down the road to les Lobes. The rest of the Battalion had been in for some time. We finally got to Harry Pulman’s old billet, which we were to share with the remains of A Company.
So few of A Company were left that there was ample room for them all and when they had slept and were rested, and awoke hungry, despite their ravenous appetites there were far too few of the Londons left to consume even half the food the company cooks had prepared. The officers ate together. It was a subdued meal, with long silences and, when it was clear that no more stragglers would come in, there was a roll-call. After it, while the men cleaned up and prepared for kit inspection, the officers dispersed to begin the task of writing the difficult letters of condolence to the next of kin of the men they knew for certain had been killed. And there were personal letters to be written too, for the first time in many days.
Charles Tennant settled down to write to his fiancee, Lucy Hilton:
Darling, Heaven only knows when this letter will reach you, but I hope it will eventually, and as I want to put down, before I forget them, some of the details of our share in the Neuve Chapelle fight I will seize the opportunity afforded by a lazy Sunday morning to do so. I went to Communion at 8 a.m. and so have cried off Battalion Church Parade. As a result I have the morning free, and what a lovely morning, the sun shining, the birds singing and the buds in the hedgerows visibly swelling before my very eyes. I am just going to jot down the bare facts and some day beside a comfortable fire I will fill in all the details…
Walter Bagot Chester brought his diary up to date: ‘I must thank my stars for being spared to see my birthday after such an action as we have had. Today was a day of rest for all.’
The weather had cleared up, the sun shone and, away from the stench and clamour of the battle, there was time to take stock and time to exult in the good fortune of being alive.
Lt. D. S. Lewis.
I’ve had huge luck in escaping being hit. My machine was hit eighty times in three days during the battle. One well-aimed shrapnel accounted for fifty-odd, and the rest were rifle bullets. Beyond a graze on the thumb and a bullet through my coat, I’ve never been touched. I’ve been brought down twice, once a bit of shell in the engine, the other time a smashed propeller, but each time I was easily high enough to get back. I can tell you I’m some nut in the artillery world! If only the initial push had been continued we should have broken through, I believe, and then anything might have happened.
In the aftermath of the battle, the delays that brought the first day’s fighting to a standstill were gone over again and again in the course of endless conclaves and discussions at General Headquarters. Reports, flooding in now, were collated, digested, compared and analysed a thousand times. Even so soon after the event it was glaringly obvious that the breakdown in communications, the inevitable lack of speedy reaction to the situation at the front, the shattering of the telephone lines between observers and the guns, had been almost wholly responsible for the frustrations and delays. But there were other factors which the staff could only ascribe to misfortune – if only the weather had been kinder, if only there had been no mist, if only orders had not been misinterpreted and certain Divisional Generals had been less hesitant, if only there had been enough shells. The qualifying arguments, even excuses, came thick and fast at every meeting and were reiterated over and over.
The blame had to be laid somewhere. It could not be laid on the shoulders of the troops, for they had been magnificent and the Command was full of praise, particularly for the prowess of the untried Territorials. It could not be shouldered by the staff, for they were confident that all their assessments had been correct and that the battleplan should have succeeded. In their view it had succeeded, and if their reasonable hopes had not been fully realised it was surely no fault of theirs. In the final analysis the fault lay with the pundits and politicians whose backing had been so singularly lacking, and whose lamentable failure to supply sufficient men and munitions had thwarted outright victory. The situation showed no signs of improving and the returns that showed the high expenditure of ammunition were far less shocking to Sir John French than the knowledge that production of ammunition in factories at home amounted to a fraction over seven miserable shells a day for every gun on his front. Three days after the battle he shot off another indignant telegram to London:
The supply of gun ammunition, especially the 18-pdr. and 4.5-inch howitzer, has fallen far short of what I was led to expect and I was therefore compelled to abandon further offensive operations until sufficient reserves are accumulated.
But, even if the battle had not led to the hoped-for result, the British commanders were nonetheless elated by success. They had penetrated the formidable German defences and broken the enemy line. They had confounded the pessimists who said that it could not be done. Best of all, they had demonstrated to their sceptical French allies that the British Army was capable of mounting a successful offensive. And if they had done it once it followed that, with very little modification of the same tactics, they could do it again.
The spectre of ‘success’ at Neuve Chapelle was to haunt the hopes and blight the plans of British commanders for the best part of the war. But the British public was heartened by news of victory and the newspapers made the most of it. A Times leader encouraged its readers to rejoice.
For the first time the British Army has broken the German line and struck the Germans a blow which they will remember to the end of their lives. The importance of our success does not lie so much in the capture of the German trenches along a front of two miles, the killing of some 6,000 Germans and the taking of 2,000 prisoners. It is the revelation of the fact that the much-vaunted German army-machine on which the whole attention of a mighty nation has been lavished for four decades is not invincible.
The politicians in the War Council were less enthusiastic and less sympathetic to Sir John French’s demands than he had hoped. Far from galvanising the War Office into activity, his telegram complaining of shortage of ammunition received a brusque reply in a letter from Lord Kitchener himself. He could promise no immediate increase in supplies; in his opinion the use of ammunition in the first sixteen days of March had been profligate, and he punched the point home by ordering that, in future, ‘the utmost economy will be made in the expenditure of ammunition’ To the Commander-in-Chief, basking in the glow of partial victory and anxious to exploit it, this edict was a severe blow.
The War Council was gratified by the reports of Neuve Chapelle and since, according to their information, the army had only narrowly failed to achieve a big success, its members were prepared to overlook the fact that Sir John French had undertaken his offensive without their full approval. But they were not over-impressed with the result. Seen from London, the situation on the western front was still unchanged, the prospect of all-out victory was still remote, and there was nothing to alter the opinion of the sceptics that the war could only be won elsewhere. They had other things on their minds and, in the course of a long meeting, they spent only a few minutes discussing events in France. Most of their attention and all of their interest was now focused on Gallipoli.
Sir Ian Hamilton was already on his way to the Dardanelles, travelling by fast destroyer, and he was still bemused by the events of the last few days. His appointment as Commander-in-Chief of a cobbled-together expeditionary force had come as a complete surprise. He had been summoned to the War Office on 12 March and, within twenty-four hours, had been sent off with such dispatch that he had only the vaguest idea of what was expected of him. His instructions, so far as they went, were to cooperate with the Royal Navy, to effect a landing on the Gallipoli peninsula and, thereafter, to proceed to occupy Constantinople. He was given no advice on how this was to be accomplished. He had no reliable maps, for there were none. He was given no information on the Turkish garrison or its defences, for no intelligence had been collected. No intelligence officers accompanied him, for none had yet been appointed. He was given no plan, for none had been drawn up, and his staff of thirteen officers, nastily co-opted, were as ignorant as he was himself. The General Staff, who had not been in the confidence of the War Council, had received no hint that a Dardanelles campaign was being mooted, and they were naturally in no position to supply more than the sketchiest outline of conditions on the peninsula. Even those dated from a scheme that had been studied and rejected as impracticable in 1906. The best they could do was to supply him with a pre-war copy of a Turkish Army handbook. It was better, but not much better, than nothing, and it was hardly surprising that Hamilton spent many solitary hours wrapped in his own thoughts as he paced the deck of the cruiser Phaeton, pausing at times to gaze reflectively at the inscrutable sea. He had plenty to think about.
The fate of the 29th Division had also been decided, for Lord Kitchener had at last agreed to release them. By 19 March the last man had embarked for Egypt where the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps were training hard. They were burdened with a clumsy title, awkward on the tongue, but the combination of initials was a happy one. Supply boxes, orders, papers, and all the stationery of the Corps was stamped with the letters ‘A. & N. Z. A. C.’ and it was only a matter of time before the convenient nickname ‘Anzac’ was universally adopted. One day it would be immortal – though no one knew it then. And it was many months before an army interpreter was struck by the shocking irony that ‘Anzac’ closely resembled a certain Turkish word. That word was ‘anjac’. Its meaning was ‘almost’.
But that was in the future. Meanwhile, like pawns in some giant tournament of chess, the troops were on the move. Hopes were high in that spring of 1915. But the battles in Europe, east and west, had been no more than the opening moves in the first rounds of the contest. Before it was concluded half the nations of the world would be vying for the role of grand master.