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March 10-12, 1915
A Learning Process for Canadians
"The assault must be launched in one rush, this is essential if it is to succeed. The energy and courage of the troops will do the rest."
- RG 9, series III-D-3, vol. 4033, folder 3, file 1.
The Battle of Neuve-Chapelle is aptly named as it provided a new role for Canadian troops who had just arrived from Salisbury Plain, England, where they had been training. While not a large battle, it was not without significance from a Canadian perspective, in that it was the first time that the Canadian Expeditionary Force had been fully involved in action with the enemy.
Canadian War Diaries for the period immediately leading up to the battle document the move of the Canadians from England to France in February, the additional training and orientation undertaken in February and early March, and the first taste of action in mid-March at Neuve-Chapelle. Their role in the battle order to prevent the Germans in this sector from reinforcing the combat zone. This would allow the British 1st Army, under General Sir Douglas Haig, to successfully push through German lines and establish a new Allied front line on conquered territory. Despite this success, however, the British missed a golden opportunity to exploit their advantage; owing to a poor communications system, they were unable to change the orders which restricted the troops from advancing, before receiving an explicit order to retake the offensive.
The main lessons of Neuve-Chapelle were as follows: that artillery bombardment was too light to suppress the enemy trenches; that more good artillery observation points were necessary; that reserves were too few to follow up success quickly; and most importantly, that the procedure of transmitting information and sending orders to the advanced troops was slow and difficult, and that the systems of communication were much too vulnerable.
The objectives in 1915 were to remain the same throughout the war-to break through the German defence lines that spanned the totality of occupied territory in northern France. One of the intermediate objectives of this plan was to force a breach through the enemy's communications centre on the Douai Plain. To achieve this, the French Army planned to join with the British and attack eastward between Arras and Lens, capture the high ground at Vimy and dominate the entire Douai region. Owing, however, to the French Army's increased presence at Gallipoli, the British 1st Army, under General Sir Douglas Haig, was obliged to begin the operation alone, and Haig's immediate objective was to attack from his position just east of the village of Neuve-Chapelle.
The Battle of Neuve-Chapelle was significant for the Canadians because it was the first time that the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) had been involved in action with the enemy (with the exception of the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, which had effected a raid on February 28, 1915 when serving with a British brigade). The 1st Canadian Division had just moved to France from training at Salisbury Plain, England, and prepared for its first experience of a set-piece battle, itself a first for the British who had until then served a purely defensive role in the Allied war effort.
Neuve-Chapelle, a village situated less than a kilometre from the front line trenches, was a smattering of houses at the epicentre of the British 1st Army's line. The village lay a short distance north east of the French 2nd Army front which extended southward from the Canal La Bassée between Lens and Arras, themselves separated by the strategically important Vimy Ridge. A 6,400-metre sector in front of Fleurbaix was occupied by the Canadians. Since water levels in this region lay close to the surface, trenches were shallow and consisted more or less of parapets formed by clumps of grass and sandbags. These trenches overlooked fields separated by rows of beheaded willow trees that lined the ditches, offering German sharpshooters cover and strategic advantage. About six kilometres to the east, Aubers Ridge partially blocked the view to the city of Lille, which was situated approximately 14 kilometres from the front lines. The German lines in the immediate vicinity were very lightly defended. The night before the attack was wet, with light snow, which turned to damp mist on March 10.
To the British 1st Army's left, the First Canadian Division was to open fire all along its front in order to divert the enemy and prevent the Germans from reinforcing the main combat zone through which the British intended to advance on Neuve-Chapelle. Quite simply, if the British Army to the right managed to break through, the Canadians stood ready to advance under British orders.
Since the Canadians' role was to divert the enemy by funnelling German resources away from the main battle zone, the assault had to take the form of a massive bombardment followed by salvoes of rapid machine-gun fire aimed at sustaining the diversion. Once the Germans had engaged in defending the sector from where the Canadians attacked, the primordial role of issuing orders to exploit the breach created along the line devolved to the British Army's communications system. Information had to circulate to the front line rapidly in order to permit a simultaneous advance of all troops and prevent the enemy from mustering reinforcements to counterattack.
In this first set-piece battle devised by the British, the overall objective was to break into enemy positions, take Neuve-Chapelle, suppress enemy trenches by bombardments, and follow up by reaching Lille.
A common feature of trench warfare for the Canadians who saw action for the first time was the night patrol, a preliminary to the actual attack. Under orders from their British commander, Lieutenant-General Sir E.A.H. Alderson, the Canadian Division had begun, almost as soon as it moved to the front in February 1915, a routine of night patrolling, sustained sniping, and quick attacks against enemy trenches. These preparations were carried out with the objective of lowering enemy morale and keeping the Germans on the defensive.
On March 10 at 7:30 a.m. (zero hour), the Canadian divisional artillery barraged enemy positions. The attack was launched 35 minutes later with gunners opening salvoes of rapid fire that continued intermittently every 15 minutes during the whole day. The tactic was successful: it caught the enemy entirely by surprise. In less than 20 minutes, a 1,600-metre breach was created in the German line. At 9:00 a.m., British troops had swept Neuve-Chapelle without encountering any resistance. Advancing units had received the order to halt at a predetermined line and wait for their General Headquarters to give them the go-ahead to continue. This is where the offensive, successful until now, completely broke down. Telephone and telegraph lines, which were much too vulnerable, had been quickly destroyed by German shelling. The transmission of information from Headquarters to troops all along the front line was, as a result, too slow for attacking unit commanders to know that they had before them a golden opportunity to rapidly exploit the territory gained at the centre of the advancing line. It was only at 5:00 p.m. that all brigades, battalions, and companies finally resumed their advance, just as the sun was setting and the day's operations had to stop.
On the morning of March 11, the British twice faced the enemy force they had encountered the previous morning. During the whole day, the Canadians repeated the role they assumed on March 10, this time without any of the previous day's results. Twice the British attempted to resume the offensive, but because the Germans had had ample time to muster fresh troops, the British no longer knew where the enemy batteries were located and could not sustain the operation. The advance halted for the day.
Before dawn on March 12, the Germans bombarded Allied positions and counterattacked with 20 battalions. British units, however, were well prepared and the enemy was pushed back successfully. Once again though, previous orders designed to prepare an advance at 10:30 a.m. prevented front line troops from exploiting this new advantage, and there was a further delay in the offensive complicated by thick fog. When the British attack was finally launched, it resulted in heavy losses. Despite rumours of spectacular gains that caused the Canadian 1st, 2nd and 3rd Brigades to prepare to advance, the Canadians remained in their trenches and by 8:40 p.m. General Haig saw no other recourse but to order the establishment of a new line of defence on newly-conquered territory. The Battle of Neuve-Chapelle was over. The British sustained 12,892 losses, of which 100 were Canadian.
Granatstein, J.L. Canada's Army: Waging War and Keeping the Peace. Toronto, Buffalo, London: University of Toronto Press, 2002.
Morton, Desmond and J.L. Granatstein. Marching to Armageddon: Canadians and the Great War 1914-1919. Toronto: Lester & Orpen Dennys Ltd., 1989.
Nicholson, Colonel G.W.L., C.D. Canadian Expeditionary Force 1914-1919: The Official History of the Canadian Army in the First World War. Ottawa: Queen's Printer and Controller of Stationery, 1962.
Rawling, Bill. Surviving Trench Warfare. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992.
The British Army in the Great War www.1914-1918.net/bat9.htm
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G.W.L. Nicholson's Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919, available online at http://www.dnd.ca/hr/dhh/downloads/Official_Histories/CEF_e.pdf