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Neuve Chapelle March 1915


harry1895
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My Grandfather was in the 2nd/Rifle Brigade at Neuve Chapelle......he survived

I have just read two very good books about this subject

"The Battle of Neuve Chapelle" by Geoff Bridger and "1915...The death of Innocence "by Lyn Maconald

Are there any other good books/publications about the same subject.

I am particularly interested in those that describe what the second battalion got up to after Neuve Chapelle

Harry 1895

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Mike

Thanks for the list....plenty to get my teeth into.....most useful

Harry1895

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  • 2 weeks later...
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Hi Harry

2RB was in the 8th Division for the duration of the war. There is a brief history on the Long Long Trail here. To get the history of the battalion, go to the horse's mouth and download the war diary from TNA for £3.36. After Neuve Chapelle

Two books that I know of are "A Serious Disappointment" by Adrian Bristow about the Battle of Aubers and the Battleground Europe book on Aubers Ridge by Edward Hancock.

Hope these help.

Glen

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Glen has pointed up two useful sources about the battle of Aubers Ridge, in which 2/RB and 8th Division were heavily involved. Certainly useful in light of your question.

I would urge a degree of caution though. Both are very good on the narrative of the battle and the geography of the area. But both are flawed in their analysis of the background, in fact they just ignore it.

Both follow on from the damnation meted out by Alan Clark in 'The Donkeys'.

Bristow, in particular states in his opening remarks that he is building upon Clark's work, where he notes that an important theme is 'the competence, or otherwise of the senior Army Commanders'. He duly goes on to trash most of the men in high authority.

Haig, inevitably, comes in for a sound bashing. He 'had not yet realised the impotence of cavalry against machine guns'. An assertition utterly refuted by material in Haig's and French's own handwriting in the National Archives where they conduct a correspondence on the correct and careful use of cavalry on the battlefields they were facing, with particular reference to machine guns. They recognise the problems all too well.

Haig is 'showing signs of the obstinacy that would cost his divisions dear'. Well, what else would you expect from Haig after watching Blackadder?

The attack plan is slated in one place, but in another is the best that it could have been.

There is plenty more of this sort of thing. Mostly the tone towards the higher command is very negative, but in places he contradicts himself.

Bottom line: use for narrative and topography. Ignore for military/political analysis.

Simon.

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Lt. Charles Pennefather of "D" Company, 2nd Rifle Brigade wrote to Lt. Chan Hoskyns, recently departed from the battalion, describing the battalion's part in Neuve Chapelle and the wasteful destruction of The Rifle Brigade:-

My Dear Chan,

So sorry I have not answered your letter before, but since the 10th of March we have been passing through such stirring times that I have only just collected my thoughts.

Now if you behave yourself, I will give you a long and vivid description of the battle of Neuve Chapelle, since we were the first to boost through the village.

We left our trenches at Laventie on the 3rd March and went back into billets in the neighbourhood for a week, during this week we had to practice the attack every day. During this time we collected every gun we could find in the neighbourhood, we got 360 ranging from the 13lb to the 15 inch.

On the night of the 9th the whole brigade moved up to the trenches and hid behind some paprapets which had taken us a fortnight to dig.

The attack was to start at 7.30 in the morning. So at 6.30 we all had a good swig of rum and at 7.30 our guns started off a most unholy bombardment the Lord ever saw, this lasted for half an hour, it killed about 100 of the Berkshires and about 10 of ours. At 8.05 the guns lifted and off boosted the Berks and the Lincolns who captured the German trenches. Then away went the R.B. and R.I.R. to capture the village. We simply boosted through the village capturing about 200 Deutchers, Byatt, Verney, Bulkley-Johnson were shot in this part.

We then arrived the other side of the village and joined up with the Indians on our right, and our job was finished since we had broken a gap in the line and we could have gone to Berlin at least if there had been anyone behind, but as you know our brilliant staff had two men and a boy and also 20,000 cavalry which they refused to let go because they said it was too foggy, all balls because there was no fog. Meanwhile the unfortunate 24th Brigade got held up on our left and were unable to push on, so we remained in our position for the night.

The next morning 11th the Deutchers had the audacity to attack us, we polished off about 600 or so, so they did not come anymore.

However, we got the order to take the German position at any cost from some bloody **** sitting at Boulogne, so away went "A&B" Companies, a most bloody fire from all corners of the earth broke out, it killed 130 of A and 90 of B, we then decided not to go on.

Never the less I am damned if another message did not come at 4.30 to take the German position regardless of cost, this time "C&D" Companies. Meanwhile Brockholes, Pilcher, Gilby, Mason and Harrison had been killed. C were to lead followed closely by D, off went C and they lost 110 men, D were just off headed by Mansel and myself when the Colonel stopped us, Mansel got one in the head here, leaving me in command of "D" Coy.

The higher authorities then decided that the attack was nothing else but murder, not a bad thought after seeing most of the R.B. stretched on the floor. That finished the day's fighting.

During the night we wired and dug like the devil. The next day the Deutchers started to bombard us at 6a.m. and continued until 4.30p.m. the most bloody experience the Lord ever invented, it polished off about 50 of us and hundreds of people at the back. I took a bullet through the hat, which took the hair off my head. I shot the blighter in the stomach.

That night was a bloody night as there were no stretcher bearers and all the wounded got left. Bridgeman got wounded by a shell in the evening, also Barton was wounded in the head and Carle in the finger.

The next day was quiter and gradually we quited down. We stopped for 14 days . Now we have been taken away for a week's rest somewhere near Sailly and we are going into the trenches which the 7th Division had.

The Canadians are in Estaires, awful drunkards. There are 2 Territorial Divisions close by too.

Rawlinson bungled the whole show. Davis was alright. Lowry Cole was very brave and nearly got blown up by a shell.

Stephens is quite well, Constable is acting Adjutant. Stopford went away as A.D.C. to Robertson before the show, Grey ios M.G. Officer. Harding has gone to St. Omer to go through a course (M.G.)

We have 12 new officers and 400 men. Hoste & Stanhope and Cable, Rodney, Trench, Raikes and six others have come here.

The Battalion lost 6 killed, 6 wounded and over 400 men. The Berks only had 7 officers left, the R.I.R. had only 4 left, the Northamptons 1 officer and 100 men left. The Scottish Rifles had all their officers killed. We lost 520 officers and 1,000 men, hell of a bloody lot.

The new trench we dug came across rows and rows of dead, those killed in October.

I met Baby out here in Estaires (he is on the 7th Division staff). This is all the news. Write me and let me know what you are doing.

Cheer Oh, yours ever

Charles P.

Andy

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Harry,

If you can get hold of it, the full and original text of Captain G.C. Wynne's classic study of the development of the German Army's defensive methods on the Western Front "If Germany Attacks" is a superb read. It was due for publishing in 1940 (heavily edited) but the publishers deemed it inappropriate to issue the volume during hostilities as the text was highly critical of the British High Command. It really is an absolutely brilliant read.

IMHO it was a disaster, and Haig should have taken responsibility in full, however Teflon Haig, although getting a bashing over it walked away from it only to repeat the same debacle less than two months later and only a couple of miles away in The Battle of Aubers Ridge with 1000's more killed, and yet again a few months later with The Battle of Loo's with yet more 1000's killed.

As Simon has stated, I believe Haig recognised SOME of the problems in relation to his precious cavalry but it would seem apparent to my mind that he had no clue regarding other aspects of a battlefield. Before I get my tin hat, I am not anti-Haig.

Andy

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Glen has pointed up two useful sources about the battle of Aubers Ridge, in which 2/RB and 8th Division were heavily involved. Certainly useful in light of your question.

I would urge a degree of caution though. Both are very good on the narrative of the battle and the geography of the area. But both are flawed in their analysis of the background, in fact they just ignore it.

Both follow on from the damnation meted out by Alan Clark in 'The Donkeys'.

Bristow, in particular states in his opening remarks that he is building upon Clark's work, where he notes that an important theme is 'the competence, or otherwise of the senior Army Commanders'. He duly goes on to trash most of the men in high authority.

Haig, inevitably, comes in for a sound bashing. He 'had not yet realised the impotence of cavalry against machine guns'. An assertition utterly refuted by material in Haig's and French's own handwriting in the National Archives where they conduct a correspondence on the correct and careful use of cavalry on the battlefields they were facing, with particular reference to machine guns. They recognise the problems all too well.

Haig is 'showing signs of the obstinacy that would cost his divisions dear'. Well, what else would you expect from Haig after watching Blackadder?

The attack plan is slated in one place, but in another is the best that it could have been.

There is plenty more of this sort of thing. Mostly the tone towards the higher command is very negative, but in places he contradicts himself.

Bottom line: use for narrative and topography. Ignore for military/political analysis.

Simon.

Simon

I agree fully with your comments. That is why I did not recommend or not recommend reading them but just said they are ones available. In the absence of decent books about the 1915 batles, we have to take what we can and cross check. The fact Bristow got both Divisions wrong in his comment about the Attack on 19th July 1916 speaks volumes for the accuracy of his greater vieww of the war.

Andy,

As ever, thank you for the letter. Most interesting.

Thanks also for the pointer to CApt Wynne's book.

Glen

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Andy,

Haig had no option but to fight Neuve-Chapelle, Aubers, Festubert and Loos. Refusal of a direct order from his C-in-C would have seen him face the same fate as Smith-Dorrien did, sent home.

Sir John French would have replaced him with someone who would do as he was told.

He did modify it heavily, from the original intention that it should be the decisive action, to something rather less.

Neuve-Chapelle was not a failure. It was a tactical success, from which one lesson was immediately learned, as Haig put it himself: If you can hit them with enough artillery then you can capture the front line. British troops were able to walk round in the open for a while because they had torn a hole in the German lines. The snag was exploiting the success on a battlefield where communications broke down the moment that the troops left their breastworks to attack. Fixed in time by developing and disseminating good practise via the S.S. series of pamphlets. The British developed, and kept evolving, a doctrine for war-fighting.

Another lesson was recognised by Rawlinson, who gave his concept the name 'Bite & Hold'. Used to brilliant effect by Plumer at Messines Ridge and then at 3rd Ypres. Politically unacceptable in 1915 and 1916, because it meant a war of attrition and a slow grinding away of the German Army. As long as the French were driving Allied Strategy it was a non-starter because slow attrition was not what they were willing to accept. Once the French were eclipsed after the failure of the Nivelle Offensive and the mutinies amongst French troops then the British set the strategy and Bite & Hold came into play. What is often overlooked about Plumer using the technique at 3rd Ypres is that he was one battle away from a strategic success. At the time of Broodseinde the Germans were preparing to evacuate western Belgium because Second Army was tearing them to pieces. It was only General Rain which saved the Germans in October 1917.

The British knew that high explosives and heavy guns were the key to seizing the firing line from the Germans. They also recognised that they were short of both. Trials with 18-pounders firing HE at Breastworks had shown that given about 30 minutes they could break them down. So the bombardment at Aubers was set to be 40 minnutes, including a final 10 minute intense bombardment. What they did not know (and which Bristow gets wrong) is that the Germans had been massively reinforcing their breastworks and had put in place a full second line behind. They had some intimation of this. There are fragments in the First Army Intelligence reports of something happening at very specific points in the German defences. But there is nothign to suggest the kind of building programem that the Germans had embarked upon. So the attempt to break down the reinforced parapets and breastworks failed utterly. Similarly the wire was largely uncut (not solved until the 106 graze fuse was introduced many months later) and the attack failed.

Even as Aubers was ongoing Haig had junked the method of battle and set about trying to find a way that would work. The short sharp bombardment was dropped in favour of a longer deliberate one, where results would be verified before the infantry went in. One week later at Festubert this was employed. it worked. The British broke into the German front line, but non-existent communication wrecked any hope of exploitation. It was not until the platoon became the key element in the Army, and officers and NCO's learned their tradecraft and initiative, that the BEF could exploit an attack. That was still over two years away.

Simon

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Hi Simon,

Agreed that Haig had no option, however we see crippling losses for what IMHO was little gained in the vaunted learning curve.

Festubert, the objective for the infantry assault was approx the line of MG nests or strongpoints 1000 yards behind the breastwork. Only in one sector of the British 6th Brigade, where surprise was gained by making the assault at night advancing in silence across no mans land, was the German breastwork rushed successfully. On the remainder of the frontage of the two assaulting divisions, who advanced at dawn, surprise was not achieved, and a few German machine guns sufficed to break up the assault.

The Germans realised the front breastwork had been so battered by the bombardment that it would be of little value as a line of defence. At nightfall the German 14th Division H.Q. ordered a new line to be constructed connecting the M.G. nests, or strongpoints about 1000 yards behind the original front line which had acted as the main holding up points. The flanks of the new line were connected up with the unattacked sector of the front breastwork on ether side, so that the only practical result of the battle was yet another very small salient.

Neuve Chapelle, the German Defences had not been really tested, it is arguable that even had the British broken through, other machine gun nests on either flank of the breakthrough would have held, hence the result even had the attack been successful would have at best led to yet another salient such as General Falkenhayn had foreseen and Haig anticipated putting cavalry into this small gap. Imagine the utter slaughter had this happened with cavalry advancing into the gap with machine guns on both flanks in a little depth.

Andy

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For an insight into the German perspective on Neuve Chapelle there's an informative section in Jack Sheldon's "The German Army on the Western Front 1915"

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  • 2 weeks later...

T0 Skipman/spof/sfayers/sworrall/stileto/stevemarsdin

I went away for a week and came back to all this advice!

Thanks so much..

With the support of you guys, my research is much easier, and my understanding of the 2nd/Rifle Brigade and their time in India and France, increases almost daily

Thanks Again

Harry1895

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I am afraid that I have only just looked at this thread and I am aware that it concerns 1915, rather than 1917. However in post 10, Simon, you suggest that the Germans were, during 3rd Ypres, 'preparing to evacuate western Belgium', which is new to me. Can you point me to your source? I say this, because I have just re-read the exchanges of correspondence between Ludendorff and Crown Prince Rupprecht in the latter's diary, which is a pretty reliable source of information and I can find no trace of any such plan - quite the reverse, with the discussion mainly centred on short term issues of ammunition resupply and tactics; all this in the context of continuing the holding/delaying action in Flanders, whilst looking ahead to strengthening particularly threatened sectors and deciding how best to approach operations in the coming winter.

It is true - and this confirmed by Kuhl, AG Rupprecht Chief of Staff (Der Weltkrieg pp 130-131) - that the AG planning staff did work up a contingency plan to cater for the possibility that French attacks might increase in size and scope and that greater economies of men and ammunition in Flanders would be necessary, but this only amounted to a short tactical withdrawal to force on the Allies the need to undertake a major effort to reposition their artillery forward and thus impose a further delay, rather along the lines of what occurred between the Battle of Messines and 31 July. There is a considerable difference between trading a small amount on terrain for time and 'preparing to evacuate western Belgium', especially because, aided by rain and the law of diminishing returns which applied to the Allied offensive operations of Oct 17, the defence, though pressured, held.

Jack

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Jack,

the evidence rests on the German official account (as Edmonds termed it), Beumelberg's 'Flandern 1917' and the contribution by Heinz Hagenluecke to Peter Lidle's 'Passchendaele in perspective'.

Beumelberg used the phrase 'black day' to describe Broodseinde, and Hagenluecke is clear that by mid-October the Germans, specifically Rupprecht, were at least thinking about, and planning for, a 'comprehensive withdrawal into the Flandern-Stellung which wouldhave included the abandonment of the Navy bases at Zeebrugge and Ostende'. It was Rupprecht, as you know better than I, who wrote that 'rain was our most effective ally' in Vol II of his published diaries. Walter Reid's 'Douglas Haig' repeats the same line of thought, but without giving his source references, which one must suspect are the same as the above, and also mentions the Austrlian Official Historian pondering on the student of history looking at the results of Menin Road Ridge, Polygon Wood and Broodseinde and what the effect might have been of threee more such attacks.

Perhaps I ought to have written 'westernmost' instead of 'western'. It would be more accurate.

It would also have been a strategic victory, had it been achieved, by kicking out one of the planks for the unrestricted submarine warfare policy (which was supposed to have won the war by mid-1917).

And fulfilled one of the reasons for conducting the 3rd Ypres campaign in the first place.

Simon.

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Can anyone tell me how much involvement the 1st Wiltshires had in this battle? my Great-Great Grandfather was in this battle before he was killed in June

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Hi Dannyboy

In early 1915, 1st Wiltshires were part of 7 Brigade in 3 Division and were in Belgium and so had no involvement with Neuve Chapelle or the other battles in France. You can download the war diary from TNA for £3.36 which will tell you about his day to day experiences while he was serving with them.

Glen

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Simon

Thank you for that. I would not disagree really or lock horns over this. I have read the account given in Vol 13 of Der Weltkrieg. It pretty well follows what Rupprecht says in his diary and although there is a discussion of a conference between Kuhl and Fourth Army, presumably with Lossberg calling the shots, when the army rejected any call for a voluntary withdrawal, Kuhl stated that the AG would not issue any order on the subject. Further consideration of possible moves to the rear seems to have been restricted to contingency planning for the spring of 1917.

Jack

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