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Battle of Neuve Chapelle

10th March 1915

 

 

The battle began on 10 March 1915. By this time, a huge influx of troops from Britain had to some extent relieved the French situation in Flanders and enabled a continuous British line stretching from Langemarck to Givenchy. The ultimate aim of the battle was to cause a rupture in the German lines which would then be exploited with a rush on the Aubers Ridge and possibly even Lille, a major enemy communications centre. A simultaneous French assault on the Vimy Ridge was also planned although the situation in Champagne soon led to this particular part of the operation to be postponed. This was to be the first time that aerial photography was to play a prominent part in a major battle with the entire German lines being mapped from the air.

 The battle

Despite poor weather conditions, the early stages of the battle went extremely well for the British. The Royal Flying Corps (RFC) quickly secured aerial dominance and set about bombarding German reserves and transportation (railways) en route to defend the area. At 7:30 a.m. on the 15th, the British began the battle with a thirty-five minute artillery bombardment, which was followed up by an infantry assault. The German defenses in the center were quickly overrun and Neuve Chapelle itself was secured in short order, leading the British to ready a cavalry brigade in order to exploit the expected breakthrough. However, on the left of the attack, two companies of the German Jaeger Battalion 11 (with roughly 200 men and a single machinegun surviving the initial shelling) delayed the advance for more than six hours until forced to retreat, causing the advance to grind to a halt. Though the aerial photography had been useful to extract, it was unable to efficiently identify the enemy's strong defensive points. Primitive communication also meant that British commanders had been unable to keep in touch with each other and the battle thus became uncoordinated and this in turn disrupted the supply lines. On 12 March, German forces commanded by Crown Prince Rupprecht launched a counter-attack which, although unsuccessful, did at least manage to end any chance of further advancement; the campaign was officially abandoned on 13 March. 40,000 Allied troops took part during the battle and suffered 11,200 (7,000 British, 4,200 Indian) casualties. The Germans lost around the same number. In total, the British succeeded in recapturing just over 2 km (1.2 mi) of lost ground.

Neuve Chapelle British Cemetery

 Aftermath

After the failure of the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, the British Commander-in-Chief Field Marshal Sir John French claimed that it failed due to a lack of shells. This led to the Shell Crisis of 1915 which, along with the failed attack on the Dardanelles, brought down the Liberal British government under the Premiership of H. H. Asquith. He formed a new coalition government and appointed Lloyd George as Minister of Munitions. It was a recognition that the whole economy would have to be geared for war if the Allies were to prevail on the Western Front.

The battle also affected British tactical thought on how best to conduct the war, salvaging the idea that infantry offensives accompanied by artillery barrages could break the stalemate of trench warfare.

Neuve Chapelle Farm Cemetery

 Indian Army in Neuve-Chapelle

The Indian Corps provided half the attacking force at the Battle of Neuve Chapelle which started on 10 March 1915. It was one of the major engagements for the Indian Army on the Western Front. Elements of the Indian Corps participating attempted to break the German lines at Neuve Chapelle and went on to capture Aubers. However, a logistical failure in moving British guns within range to cover the advance saw the Indian troops go in without covering fire. Almost 1,000 were killed. Other equally futile attacks were ordered that day by the British 1st Army commander, General Sir Douglas Haig, with similar tragic results. On 25 April, the Indian Corps had its first full exposure to toxic gas warfare.

Rifleman Gabbar Singh Negi of the 2nd / 39th Garhwal Rifles was awarded the Victoria Cross, the United Kingdom’s highest award for valour. The citation for his award, published in the official London Gazette, read:

For most conspicuous bravery on 10 March, 1915, at Neuve-Chapelle. During our attack on the German position he was one of a bayonet party with bombs who entered their main trench, and was the first man to go round each traverse, driving back the enemy until they were eventually forced to surrender. He was killed during this engagement.

Gabbar Singh Negi was one of 4,700 soldiers of the Indian Army who are commemorated at the Neuve-Chapelle Indian Memorial maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

War graves of Indian Army and the Indian Labour Corps are found at Ayette, Souchez and Neuve-Chapelle

Neuve Chapelle Indian Memorial

 

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