CHAPTER I NEUVE CHAPELLE AND WAR IN BLOOD-SOAKED TRENCHES
After the immortal stand of Joffre at the first battle of the Marne and the sudden savage thrust at the German center which sent von Kluck and his men reeling back in retreat to the prepared defenses along the line of the Aisne, the war in the western theater resolved itself into a play for position from deep intrenchments. Occasionally would come a sudden big push by one side or the other in which artillery was massed until hub touched hub and infantry swept to glory and death in waves of gray, or blue or khaki as the case might be. But these tremendous efforts and consequent slaughters did not change the long battle line from the Alps to the North Sea materially. Here and there a bulge would be made by the terrific pressure of men and material in some great assault like that first push of the British at Neuve Chapelle, like the German attack at Verdun or like the tremendous efforts by both sides on that bloodiest of all battlefields, the Somme.
Neuve Chapelle deserves particular mention as the test in which the British soldiers demonstrated their might in equal contest against the enemy. There had been a disposition in England as elsewhere up to that time to rate the Germans as supermen, to exalt the potency of the scientific equipment with which the German army had taken the field. When the battle of Neuve Chapelle had been fought, although its losses were heavy, there was no longer any doubt in the British nation that victory was only a question of time.
The Battle Ground Of Neuve Chapelle
The action came as a pendant to the attack by General de Langle de Cary's French army during February, 1915, at Perthes, that had been a steady relentless pressure by artillery and infantry upon a strong German position. To meet it heavy reinforcements had been shifted by the Germans from the trenches between La Bassée and Lille. The earthworks at Neuve Chapelle had been particularly depleted and only a comparatively small body of Saxons and Bavarians defended them. Opposite this body was the first British army. The German intrenchments at Neuve Chapelle surrounded and defended the highlands upon which were placed the German batteries and in their turn defended the road towards Lille, Roubaix and Turcoing.
The task assigned to Sir John French was to make an assault with only forty-eight thousand men on a comparatively narrow front. There was only one practicable method for effective preparation, and this was chosen by the British general. An artillery concentration absolutely unprecedented up to that time was employed by him. Field pieces firing at point-blank range were used to cut the barbed wire entanglements defending the enemy intrenchments, while howitzers and bombing airplanes were used to drop high explosives into the defenseless earthworks.
Sir Douglas Haig, later to become the commander-in-chief of the British forces, was in command of the first army. Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien commanded the second army. It was the first army that bore the brunt of the attack.
No engagement during the years on the western front was more sudden and surprising in its onset than that drive of the British against Neuve Chapelle. At seven o'clock on the morning of Wednesday, March 10, 1915, the British artillery was lazily engaged in lobbing over a desultory shell fire upon the German trenches. It was the usual breakfast appetizer, and nobody on the German side took any unusual notice of it. Really, however, the shelling was scientific "bracketing" of the enemy's important position. The gunners were making sure of their ranges.
THE GLORIOUS CHARGE OF THE NINTH LANCERS
An incident of the retreat from Mons to Cambrai. A German battery of eleven guns posted in a wood, had caused havoc in the British ranks. The Ninth Lancers rode straight at them, across the open, through a hail of shell from the other German batteries, cut down all the gunners, and put every gun out of action.
At 7.30 range finding ended, and with a roar that shook the earth the most destructive and withering artillery action of the war up to that time was on. Field pieces sending their shells hurtling only a few feet above the earth tore the wire emplacements of the enemy to pieces and made kindling wood of the supports. Howitzers sent high explosive shells, containing lyddite, of 15-inch, 9.2-inch and 6-inch caliber into the doomed trenches and later into the ruined village. It was eight o'clock in the morning, one-half hour after the beginning of the artillery action, that the village was bombarded....