Mauquissart was a cluster of ruined houses on the left of the planned attack. It was clear enough to see for it was barely a quarter mile behind the German line directly in front of Aubers on the ridge a mile beyond. Between them, close to Mauquissart, another landmark rose out of the tumbled grey waste. It was the Moulin du Pietre, a large double-storeyed working mill that had served local farmers for miles around and now doubtless served the Germans as a useful place from which to make observation close to their line. Beyond Mauquissart the enemy line began to curve, dipping back slightly behind the Ferme van Biesen, brooding, abandoned, a hundred yards ahead in No Man’s Land. It was a large farm, almost a manor, surrounded by trees and a once-ornamental waterscape that had doubled as a drainage ditch in the low-lying farmland. A hundred yards beyond it, British troops, looking from their own lines into No Man’s Land, christened it the Moated Grange.
The line that looked so clear-cut and distinct drawn as a firm black line on war maps in the newspapers was different when looked at from the air or the line itself. The two sets of trench-lines, separated by a hundred yards or so, straggled and meandered through a mish-mash of splintered trees, crumbling buildings, ruined roadways, here switching back to take advantage of higher ground, there jutting out to protect the prize of a fortified village or wood. As often as not the trenches ran in untidy loops and angles where the last loss or gain of a local attack had left them. There was nothing clear-cut about them.
Beyond the Moated Grange the German trenches ran south to cross the track the British called Signpost Lane, and then pushed out to form the salient enclosing Neuve Chapelle. Where that salient ended another began, jutting this time into the German lines. The British called it Port Arthur and it was small, but it was theirs, and this was all to the good, for it enclosed the crossroads where the Estaires road met the Rue du Bois that ran back towards Béthune and these were the vital, the indispensable routes to the trenches. Before the lines had been rudely carved across it the Rue du Bois had also led to the Bois du Biez, a large rectangular wood, half a mile in length and half a mile behind Neuve Chapelle. It was empty and untouched. In early March, as buds on the trees slowly opened, the wood beyond the Indians’ front line was gradually turning green.
This, then, was the battlefield. It was such a small stretch of land that an onlooker at a vantage point not much above ground level could have surveyed it at a glance, barely turning his head. The headache for artillery observation officers was that vantage points above ground level near their lines were few and far between. For want of anything better, haystacks were burrowed out to serve as makeshift observation posts and on the day before the battle no fewer than thirty observation officers crowded into a single ruined house at Pont Logy, training binoculars on the trenches of the salient that protected Neuve Chapelle. It was here at Pont Logy that the twenty machine-guns of the Indian Corps would be massed to cover the advance. The ammunition had been brought up and sandbagged emplacements constructed in the front line. All the previous night Arthur Agius and his men had been working. At six in the morning they returned to la Couture and Agius turned in to sleep for a few hours, stretched out on a wooden table. With so many troops crammed behind the front there was neither a bed nor floor-space to be found. But he slept the sleep of the just. In a short time they would be off and so far as his part went, he was satisfied that everything was ready.
At the eleventh hour and some eighteen hours before they were due to take part in the battle, the 59th Siege Battery finally arrived.
Bdr. W. Kemp.
We detrained at Estaires and went into action off the la Bassée Road. We pulled into the orchard of a farm and I was detailed to join the signallers – or telephonists as we really were. There was very little morse code used and visibility didn’t allow us to use flags. But we all had to set to and get our heavy guns set up double-quick and it was some job, although we were trained to do things double-quick and it seemed like practice camp all over again. It was what we had been used to and the only difference was the country we were in. The detachments put down their double-deck platforms and bulk holdfast – the guns were anchored to them by a volute spring. But the volute springs had been left behind! That was the first panic. The consequence was that when the guns fired they recoiled about ten yards and had to be run-up by hand to the correct position – just like the old days in India.
The line of fire was the next question. What to do? Well, what we did was to ask another battery not far away. We could only see about two hundred yards on account of trees, but we could see the spire of Neuve Chapelle Church. The officer on this job was told to get a line on the church, hit it, and then register this as his line of fire and switch from it to other targets. He set up a plane table with a map of the area, put a pin on the church and another in the centre of the battery position. Then, with a director marked in a 180 degrees left and right, he took a zero line from the pins and then gave individual angles to all the guns, which brought them into parallel lines with the line of his director. One gun fired and hit the church and the others took parallel lines to it. But, needless to say, it didn’t fire that afternoon, and it was doubtful if we could even be ready to fire a shot in the bombardment next day.
The Colonel of the Brigade came along about this time and spoke to the Major to tell him about the battle tomorrow. They stood at the plane table and the Colonel pointed to the map. I heard him say, ‘One division will go in and swing left, the next one will go in and swing right, and then the cavalry will go through.’ The Major looked at him and said, ‘Like Hell they will!’ I heard him say it.
The Major had good reason to be despondent. The Colonel had spared no pains to stress the importance of the role his Howitzers were expected to play, and the Battery-Commander well knew that it would be a near-impossibility to achieve it. Despite the gargantuan efforts of his men, he would be lucky if his guns were able to fire a shot in the next twenty-four hours, let alone hit the target, and on this occasion the enemy would not be so obliging as to fire puffs of signal smoke to help them. But, in the late afternoon, as the troops were assembling for the move to the line, there was hardly another man from Sir John French himself to the most newly arrived Territorial who was not full of optimism and confident of success.
L/cpl. W. L. Andrews.
We felt honoured to think we’d been chosen to serve in the battle. We were eager to fight, smarting to avenge the things that had been said about the Territorials. We might be raw – we’d only been out a couple of months – but we were keen men, intelligent men, and every one a volunteer. We meant to do our best and we were convinced that this was the battle that might end the war! In those days we thought we only had to break through the German front and the enemy would crumple up and we would be done with trenches because, once we had thrust through the trench system the line would be rolled up. That was a favourite phrase then, rolled up!
Later on, battles were more mysterious and the ordinary soldier never knew what was happening except in his own bit of battlefield. You could get stuck in a reeking shell pit for a whole day and night and not know whether it was friend or foe in the trench fifty yards away. Of course battle plans were not revealed to a humble lance-corporal like myself, but at Neuve Chapelle we had a good idea what we were after. We had a very fair idea of the ground to be covered and in our stints in the line we studied it as much as we could. The ground slowly rose towards the village of Aubers and we knew that about nine miles beyond was the city of Lille. We were hopeful and innocent enough to believe that there would be cosy billets for us in Lille on the night of the battle.
The men from Dundee knew that they were not to take part in the opening stages of the battle. Their job was to wait until Neuve Chapelle had been captured, only then would they move forward to hold the first captured trenches while the victors swept ahead. Every man knew what he had to do. Alex Letyford had spent most of the day making the scaling-ladders that would take the troops across the enemy’s sandbags, but he would be in the thick of it when the battle began. Around the salient, as aeriel photographs had shown, some trenches straggled back deep into German territory to link up with others that could not possibly be taken in the first assault. As soon as the first wave had gained a foothold engineers would go forward to construct barricades that would protect them as they consolidated and dug in, and a thousand Sikhs of the Lahore Division were standing by to repair the surface of the shattered road that ran through the German front line into Neuve Chapelle. As darkness fell and the troops began to gather for the move to the line, the Battalions who held it shuffled right or left to make room for them.
Capt. A. J. Agius, MC.
Until five o’clock we worked on the guns then we pushed up to the front again, via Richebourg St Vaast and Windy Corner. Our brigade was to make the attack on the Indian Corps frontage, four Battalions in the front line, with ours in support, and behind them the remainder of the Corps. The Brigade Machine-Guns were divided into two; half went forward with their own Battalions just behind the attacking line, the remainder were to bring supporting fire to bear from the trenches on the left flank south of Pont Logy and this was where I was with my colleague, Johnnie Sutcliffe.
Lt. C. Tennant.
On 9 March we were still at Vieille Chapelle, because our brigade had been in reserve. We had received orders on the 8th to be ready for a move and we spent the 9th packing up and sending away all superfluous kit to store at la Couture. We took nothing with us but rations, coats, a spare pair of socks and twenty rounds per man.
I turned in at 10.30 leaving orders that I was to be woken at one o’clock. Breakfast for the men was punctually at 2 a.m. and the Battalion was ready formed up in the road by 2.55. It was dry, but cold and rather misty. We marched to Richebourg and passed through it to a redoubt in an orchard and the companies were put into trenches and dug-outs and were all settled by about 5.30. An occasional shot from a field battery made the morning sound like any other morning during the last two months.
The troops were packed so tightly, the narrow country roads were so congested, and their progress was so slow and full of checks that it was dangerously close to dawn before the last of them reached the line. It was no bad thing that waiting time was shortened, for the assembly points were still wet and muddy and trenches that had been put into reasonable order had been soaked yet again by frequent showers of rain and sleet. It was dry now, but it was cold. A light mist carried frost across the battlefield and in the early hours, mercifully for the men who would advance across it, the ground froze hard. Stew that was still more or less hot had been carried up in dixies for the soldiers of the first wave who had been longest in position and, as they chewed and waited, they could hear movement in front, a medley of muffled voices, of chinking and loud twangs, as parties of Royal Engineers cut wide openings in their own barbed wire. In a little while the first wave would be charging through them on their way to the enemy line.
L/cpl. W. L. Andrews.
Snow swept down on us as we waited in the flooded trenches near Neuve Chapelle. We grew colder and colder – so cold that I never thought I could be so chilled and still live. It was sheer biting torture. We could hardly drag our feet along when the orders came to move from the trench to the Port Arthur dug-outs for a few hours sleep before the battle.
At five in the morning my platoon was routed out again to move to a reserve trench. We shambled over ground hardened by frost. It was colder than ever. We called it a trench, but it was more of a breastwork like a stockade strengthened with sandbags of earth, my pals Nicholson and Joe Lee and myself huddled together close to each other with our backs to the stockade. When dawn came we peered across at the German lines, wondering if Jerry knew we were coming.
Dawn broke on the day of battle at half past six in the morning. At just about that time the 6th Bavarian Reserve Battalion were marching to billets in Tourcoing. They were weary, for they had spent two weeks in the wintry trenches near Ypres. They had marched ten kilometres before transport met them at Menin and it had been a long cold night. Now they were looking forward to hot coffee, a breakfast of bread and sausage and cabbage soup, a wash to get rid of the mud, and two blessed weeks away from the dangers and discomfort of the front. In the courtyard behind the Dewavrin house a cooker had already been set up, and the family wakened to the sound of tramping feet and shouted commands as a half company of Bavarians marched in.
Lt. C. Tennant.
The daylight, as it strengthened, showed no sign of anything unusual taking place on our front. But at 7.30 punctually the whole sky was rent by noise – about four hundred British guns all opening fire at once in a concentrated bombardment of two hundred yards of German trenches. We had a battery of – I think – 4.7s only forty yards behind us and the din was terrific. The whole air and the solid earth itself became one quivering jelly. After the first few minutes and after I had gone round and told them to keep their mouths open (instead of trying to look grim with clenched teeth!) the men didn’t seem to worry much about the row which was enough to give anyone a sick headache. Funnily enough, I normally have a fanatical dislike for mere noise of any kind, but I was conscious of nothing except the extraordinary sense of security the infantry man gets from hearing artillery fire from his own side.
L/cpl. W. L. Andrews.
The bombardment started like all the furies of hell. The noise almost split our wits. The shells from the field guns were whizzing right over our heads and we got more and more excited. We couldn’t hear ourselves speak. Now we could make out the German trenches. They were like long clouds of smoke and dust, flashing with shell-bursts, and we could see enormous masses of trench material and even bodies thrown up above the smoke clouds. We thought the bombardment was winning the war before our eyes and soon we would be pouring through the gap.
Capt. W. G. Bagot-Chester, MC, 2/3 Gurkha Rifles, Garhwal Brig., Meerut Div.
At 7.30 a.m. artillery bombardment commenced, and never since history has there been such a one. I should think for a full half hour our guns, four hundred and eighty of them, fired without the fraction of a second’s break. You couldn’t hear yourself speak for the noise. It was a continual rattle and roar. We lay very low in our trenches, as several of our guns were firing short. Later I picked up two shrapnel bullets and the bottom of a shell fuse. They’d landed right beside me.
Lt. C. Tennant.
An aeroplane was observing not very far in front of us and flying fairly low down. A very risky job with that tremendous amount of big ‘iron ration’ flying about. Through all the bombardment and in fact through all the heavy shelling of that day and the next, the larks mounted carolling up to the sky with shells screaming all round them, as though all that devil’s din was only some insane nightmare and as though all that was really true was the coming of spring.
Capt. A. J. Agius.
It was hell let loose. The village and the trenches in front of it were blown to bits. The village seemed to melt away before our eyes. The Hun bracketed one of my guns and finally buried it, but no harm done. The infantry assault was launched at 8.05. Nearest us on the right were the 2/39 Garhwals. They went trotting over. Suddenly I saw a fellow stop then spin and spin till he fell. Others pushed on, tried to get through a hedge, eased to their left and got in further along. It was wonderful to watch the two attacks converge and meet.
Capt. W. G. Bagot-Chester, MC.
Our first attacking line of two double companies advanced, and our guns increased their range so as not to hit our men. Our first and second lines reached the enemy’s trenches without much loss because the Boche were obviously quite demoralised by the bombardment. I followed close behind with H Company. Last of all Major Dundas brought along G Company. We advanced right through to the front line under very light fire. We all reached our objective, an old trench-line called the Smith-Dorrien Line, with only about 96 casualties in the whole Battalion, and started to dig ourselves in in case of a counter-attack. There was very little firing from the German side and our attack seemed to have taken them completely by surprise. Some snipers left behind in our advance troubled us for some time until they were cleared out by the Leicesters on our right.
Since the 3rd Londons were in reserve for the early part of the action, Arthur Agius and his machine-gunners were the only men of their Battalion who had taken part in the first attack. His guns had covered it from emplacements in the front line and he had seen it all – the dash across No Man’s Land when the barrage lifted, the charge into the trenches of the salient and the signal flags that appeared in an encouragingly short time to show that the line had been captured. For the Germans had indeed been demoralised by the bombardment and they were overrun before they could recover. On the left, Captain Peake of the Lincolns, a blue flag held high above his head, rushed along behind his bombers while they cleared the trenches. Away on the right, Lieutenant Gordon of the Berkshires, waving a flag of bright pink, was doing the same thing. It was the signal for sappers to rush to block the captured trenches, and the signal for the second wave to pass across them and rush the defences of Neuve Chapelle.
Lt. C. Tennant.
We got word that all the first line of German trenches was taken and that an attack was pushing on into Neuve Chapelle. At 10.30 we were ordered to move up in support and marched forward to a place near the line. There was a big farm where No. 1 Company sheltered, while No. 2 lay down very comfortably in the sun under the lee of some straw stacks. From here through my glasses I could very clearly see our first line of supports lining an old trench. Presently across the field came trudging a cocky little Tommy of the Leicestershires with fixed bayonet following a dozen young German prisoners. He was munching a ration biscuit and he was yellow with lyddite fumes. Soon other parties began to pass with prisoners, most of them looking very shaken but delighted to be out of the inferno and in comfortable captivity (instead of having been shot at once which – according to their own officers – is the fate of all prisoners who fall into our hands!).
The outlying trenches had been captured so quickly and the troops had dashed so speedily through Neuve Chapelle to occupy trenches on the other side that the supporting Battalions following on their heels to secure the village might have had a dangerous time. Snipers lying low in the houses had been trapped there by the bombardment and, with shells exploding all around their hideouts, they had no chance of escaping before the British were upon them. But the snipers were not inclined to give trouble. One Artillery Observation Officer went forward soon after the village had been captured to reconnoitre a new observation post. Two signallers went with him, carrying telephones and the reels of new wire that would connect them with the guns, and he brought along the battery’s trumpeter, Jimmy Naylor, to run back to the battery with messages if required. Young Naylor was only seventeen, but he had been in France as a boy trumpeter since the beginning. He had blown the trumpet-call that brought the guns of his battery out of Mons, he had ridden back with them on the long retreat, he had been in the battles of the Marne and the Aisne. It all added up to the most amazing six months of his short life and even the privations of a winter in Flanders had not dampened his cocky enthusiasm. Compared to the Territorials on the battlefield, Jimmy was an old sweat, but this was his first experience of victory and it was the biggest thrill of the lot.
Tmptr. J. Naylor, 23 Brig., RFA, Att. 8 Div.
We came in just at the back of the troops, after the second wave. The first lot had gone on and they’d already consolidated on the far side of the village, and we could hear the guns firing on either side of us, but there was nothing in the village, just the odd burst of small-arms fire. The infantry were clearing the houses and I never saw anyone so pleased as these little Gurkhas! They looked as if they were having the time of their lives. There was one that caught my eye, and it was a really ghoulish sight, but being a boy and full of bravado I wasn’t a bit squeamish. I was a cold-blooded little blighter at that time, but I’ve never forgotten it, because he was carrying the face of a German – not his head, just his face, clean sliced off. And he was grinning like mad, this little Gurkha, which was more than you could say for the German prisoners who were being marched back. It must have given them a very nasty turn.
We were standing there waiting, because my officer wanted to get into these houses to bag a position to observe from – we thought we’d be moving the guns forward any minute – but we had to hang about until we were told it was safe to go in. All of a sudden a cheer went up, and coming down the street was another little Gurkha driving a bunch of Germans in front of him at bayonet point. There must have been half a dozen of them and they were twice his size! They all had their hands up, and he looked as pleased as punch. It was marvellous! Even the Major laughed to see them. We were exhilarated, all of us.
The Gurkha soldier’s name was Gane Gurung and no one was more exhilarated than he, for the Germans had still been firing from one house and he had gone into it alone and captured eight burly prisoners single-handed. It was the 2nd Rifle Brigade who had called for three cheers when he marched them out and, as the Indian Corps Commander later proudly pointed out, there was ‘probably no other instance of an individual Indian soldier being cheered for his bravery by a British Battalion in the midst of a battle’. It was Gane Gurung’s moment of glory. Another came a few weeks later when the whole brigade paraded and in front of them all Sir James Willcocks pinned the Indian Order of Merit on his chest. But that was only the icing on the cake.
Another Gurkha was just as anxious to show off his German prisoner, and he was so delighted with him that, by the time he had made his way over open ground and was crossing the old front line near Agius’s emplacement, he had shouldered his rifle and was walking chummily by the German’s side. Now that the advance had gone far ahead the machine-gunners had ceased firing and, as they waited for orders, they had time to look around. This was the first time any of them had clapped eyes on a German and, seeing them stare, the Gurkha stopped and ostentatiously offered his prisoner a cigarette. It was gratefully accepted, and as the German soldier pulled on it he stared back at the machine-gunners. ‘Offizier?’ he asked, pointing to Arthur Agius. His captor guessed his meaning and nodded, but the German was shaking his head. ‘Junge. Junge,’ he remarked. Agius, all of twenty-one and recently promoted to the rank of captain, was not greatly flattered by this uncalled-for comment on his boyish looks. He gave the German a frosty glare, indicated to his escort that he should get a move on and was rather pleased that, after only two weeks with the Meerut Division, the two words of dialect he had picked up now came in useful. ‘Jaldi Jow,’ he ordered. He had no idea which Indian language they belonged to – and they happened to be Urdu – but they worked, and the small Gurkha fell in smartly behind his prisoner and obediently started to hurry him along. Shells were beginning to fall dangerously close and the German showed no sign of being loath to go.
The victors of Neuve Chapelle were not having things all their own way and the Germans were beginning to answer back.
L/cpl. W. L. Andrews.
We thought the German guns must have been swept out of existence, but they soon opened up and we got the benefit of the counter-fire. Nicholson shouted, ‘Look, they’re shelling our fellows!’ Sure enough, looking along the breastwork I could see shrapnel plumping down on our own Black Watch Terriers. They were shelling all along our line and every shell came about ten yards nearer Nick and myself. We could see our turn coming and all we could do was lie and wait for it. Nick yelled, ‘The next one’s ours!’ Douglas Bruce, another pal, had crawled up to us for warmth, and he just shouted, ‘Och well, if we’re for it, we’re for it!’ I was amazed how calm we were. The shell came screaming over and we wormed down as low as we could. It burst with a great roar ten yards away and we were drenched with earth. Then it was past. A few more fell further and further behind us and it fell quiet. We could even hear birds singing.
Lt. D. S. Lewis.
I saw most of it from the air and I was badly scared. We had about four hundred guns all firing like hell and as we were flying at about twelve hundred feet owing to clouds, we were fairly surrounded by our own shells. It was quite a relief crossing the line to exchange German bullets for British shells. No troops would have withstood that bombardment. I fairly had the wind put up me by seeing a 9.2-inch shell whizz past my tail. Two of my subalterns were killed by a shell.
Owing to the weather we couldn’t do much in the way of ranging, but we caught most of their batteries firing, which was quite useful. The first part of the show was well run. We’d been registering all the batteries on all important points and every inch of the trenches had been photographed from above, so that every subaltern knew exactly where he was attacking and what trenches there were in front and to the flanks.
L/cpl. W. L. Andrews.
At eleven o’clock the order came: ‘4th Black Watch, move to the left in single file’. Neuve Chapelle had been taken and we were ordered to move forward to the captured German trenches. We passed many many Indian dead on the way and the ground was a mass of stinking shell-pits. There was a point where we had to jump a ditch in full view of the Germans. They were a longish way off but they must have had a rifle trained on it and they were hitting men as they jumped. Captain Boase was on the other side of the ditch calling on us to hurry, because so many men hesitated to jump that we were in a bunch. There were four in front of me. The first ran as fast as he could and jumped high. Crack! A bullet got him, but it was only a slight wound and he recovered himself and carried on. A little stumpy fellow was next. Crack! He was shot dead. The next man just flopped into the ditch and scrambled out soaking. Then Nicholson jumped and got away with it. Then it was my turn. I thought to myself, ‘Now for it!’ I’d jumped for my school, so I aimed to jump high, tucked my legs under me and then thrust them forward for landing. Bullets whistled past, but I wasn’t hit. It’s curious, but that jump is almost the last thing I remember! Everything is confusion after that, except that there seemed to be more and more fire, and I remember the stench of the shell-pits stinging my nostrils.
But Neuve Chapelle had fallen. It had been captured in less than an hour, and everything had gone like clockwork.
Messages flashed from First Army Headquarters. The Cavalry was ordered to move close up, and at mid-day the 8th Sherwood Foresters received instructions to start marching without delay to Bac St Maur. From there only two hours’ march would take them into battle and they were warned to be ready to move at a moment’s notice.