The Battle of Neuve-Chapelle, 10-13 March 1915, was a small scale battle in Artois fought in advance of the main Spring offensives of 1915. It was fought in an attempt to reduce a German salient south of Ypres. The attack was carried out by four divisions from General Sir Douglas Haig’s First Army (7th and 8th British and Meerut and Lahore Divisions of the Indian Corps). The British managed to gather their force of 60,000 men, supported by 500 guns, without alerting the Germans. As a result the sector of the German line to be attacked was defended by less than 10,000 men.
The bombardment began at 7.00 a.m. It was aimed at the German front line trenches, the wire and selected strongpoints behind the lines. It was followed by a standing barrage designed to isolate the German front line and prevent reinforcements from being sent forward.
The initial attack was a total success. The infantry assault began at 8.05 a.m., and by 8.30 the British had created a breach 1,600 yards in the German lines. A minor breakthrough beckoned.
That breakthrough was prevented by a combination of a rigid British plan and a well though out German response. The rigidity of the British plan was an attempt to deal with the confusion caused during battle. Communication between the advancing troops and Headquarters was difficult at best and almost impossible during the battle. The British plan was designed to make sure that the battle remained under control even if communications were broken.
The British plan called for two pauses in the advance, once after the first line of trenches had been captured to allow for another bombardment, and one after the lines had broken to allow Haig to give orders that reflected the new situation. It was this second pause that caused the failure of the British attack. It took six hours, from 9.00 am until 3 p.m., for information from the front to reach Haig and for new orders to be issued. It then took another three hours for those orders to reach the front line troops. By then it was too late.
In 1915 everything favoured the defenders. A single machine gun post could hold up hundreds of attackers. Even when part of the defensive line was breached, the left and right flanks of the breach would still be largely intact, along with their established lines of communication. Falkenhayn had put in place standing orders to deal with a breach in the lines. This meant that while the British junior officers in the breach were waiting for orders, their German equivalents knew what to do.
Their first task was to secure the flanks of the breach. That was done before noon. The next step was to rush reinforcements from the rear area to seal the breach. A new German line was taking shape before the British were able to renew their attack. The chance for a real breakthrough was gone.
Both sides planned to attack on 11 March. The British attack was stopped by fog, which prevented the artillery from bombarding the new German line. The German attack had to be postponed when one of the units involved failed to arrive in time. When the German counterattack was launched on 12 March, the British had had time to set up their own defensive line and the German attack was repulsed.
The battle ended with the British in control of the village of Neuve-Chapelle but the Germans on the ridge to the east. British losses are various reported as 11,652 or 13,000, German losses as between 9,000 and 14,000. Neuve-Chapelle marked the last offensive use of the Indian Corps on the Western Front, although Indian soldiers remained in the line for most of the rest of 1915, before being transferred to the Middle East. Sir John French blamed the relative failure of the attack on a shortage of shells, helping to trigger the “shell crisis” that brought down the last Liberal government.