London 1918, the Armistice and Regimental histories

The First Seven Divisions - Neuve Chapelle in 1914

Being a Detailed Account of the Fighting from Mons to Ypres

Author: Ernest W. Hamilton

NEUVE CHAPELLE

The 3rd Division had perhaps, if anything, been so far less highly tried in the way of ceaseless fighting against odds than the 5th Division, but any deficiency in this respect was fully made up to them by the fighting at Neuve Chapelle on the 25th, 26th and 27th.

This very costly three days' fighting opened on the night of the 25th, during a heavy downpour of rain which succeeded a beautiful day, by a furious attack, from the neighbourhood of the Bois de Biez, on the left of the 7th Brigade and the right of the 8th Brigade. This wood, which played a prominent part in these three days' fighting, lies about half a mile to the south-east of Neuve Chapelle, in the centre of the equilateral triangle formed by that place, Aubers and Illies. The Germans advanced out of the wood with great courage and with every appearance of meaning business, but the 7th Brigade and the 15th Sikhs, who had taken over from Conneau's cavalry the day before, managed to stand their ground, and in the end drove the enemy back with very heavy loss, though themselves suffering severely, the Sikhs, who fought superbly, alone losing 200 in officers and men.

The 8th Brigade was not so fortunate, the R. Irish Rifles, who were the right-hand battalion, being driven out of their trenches, which lay north of the La Bassée road on the east side of the village. The situation for the moment was critical, but the lost trenches were very gallantly retaken by the 4th Middlesex, led by Col. Hull, and the 4th R. Fusiliers. The latter battalion suffered considerably in the operation, Lieuts. Hope-Johnstone and Waller being killed. This battalion had now only 200 men left. The whole of the 9th Brigade, in fact, had been reduced to mere skeletons. This brigade (Shaw's) had a magnificent record behind it. [6] From the time when, at Mons, it had borne the brunt of the German attack and put up such a magnificent defence, it had never failed in any task for which it had been called upon; and it is possible that its great fighting reputation and the cheerfulness with which it undertook any duty assigned it, coupled with the undoubted military talents of its Brigadier, had earned for it rather more than its fair share of difficult and dangerous work. During the past fortnight it had fought with great gallantry and with invariable success, and during that short period it had lost 54 officers and 1,400 men.

On the following day the attack was renewed, the Germans suddenly swarming once again out of the Bois de Biez opposite, and the R. Irish Rifles were again driven in, their trenches being at once occupied by the enemy, many of whom entered the town and remained there throughout the day.

The 7th Brigade on the right and the 9th Brigade on the left now had the Germans wedged in between them. The Northumberland Fusiliers (the old Fighting Fifth) on the right of the 9th Brigade, now found the position untenable in the weak numerical condition to which they had been reduced, and they were compelled to withdraw to the western side of the town. During this withdrawal, which was carried out in excellent order, Corpl. Fisk found time to extinguish some flames which were enveloping the limber of one of our guns—a gallant act performed under very heavy fire for which he was given the D.C.M.

On the night of the 26th the position at Neuve Chapelle was a curious one. The enemy were in possession of all the trenches on the north-east side of the town, but on the south-east side the Wiltshire Regiment, the R. West Kents, the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry and the East Surrey were still holding their ground, in advance of the town. The rest of the 3rd Division were thrown back behind the town.

About 11 a.m. on the 27th the usual morning attack was made on the Wiltshire Regiment, whose left flank was now, of course, quite unprotected, and by noon they too had been forced to retire, the Germans in great numbers following closely on their heels. The position of the R. West Kents was now most precarious, as they had the enemy on three sides of them, and it seemed inevitable that they must follow the example of the several regiments on their left, who had been successively forced to give way. Such, however, was not their opinion, and, undismayed by the apparent hopelessness of their position, they promptly set about preparing a defence which proved to be one of the most remarkable of the campaign. Major Buckle, who was in command, on seeing the Wiltshires forced back, at once made his way to the left of his battalion in order to reorganize the formation so as to meet the altered conditions, but he was almost immediately killed, Captain Legard being killed at the same time and Lieuts. Williams and Holloway wounded. All the company officers on the left flank were now down, but the new movement was carried out under the direction of Sergt.-Major Penny and Sergt.-Major Crossley, the reserve company wheeling to its left, while the left of the firing line threw back its flank, so as to present a convex face to the position now occupied by the enemy. All this was carried out under a murderous fire. In this formation the battalion held on till the evening, when our troops in rear of the town counter-attacked with momentary success. This success was mainly brought about by the 47th Sikhs and the 9th Bhopal Regiment, who made a fine dash into the town from the direction of Croix Barbée, the first-named regiment showing great courage, but they both suffered heavy losses from the ubiquitous German machine-guns in the houses. At the same time three groups of the French Cyclist Corps made an attack from the Pont Logis side. The impetus of these combined attacks drove the Germans back for the time being, and indeed for the whole of that night, but their concealed machine-guns continued to play havoc in the ranks of the assailants, and in the early morning of the 28th the attacking force had to fall back, the Germans once more re-occupying the town.

The position of the R. West Kents was now as bad again as ever, and once more half the battalion had to face about to its left flank and rear. The execution of this movement again took its toll of officers, Captain Battersby and Lieut. Gore being killed, and Lieut. Moulton-Barratt wounded. The battalion had now lost twelve out of the fourteen officers with which it had gone into these trenches, 2nd Lieut. White and 2nd Lieut. Russell alone being left, and on these two it now devolved to maintain the spirit of the corps. The remarkable position had by this time developed that practically the whole of Neuve Chapelle was in the hands of the enemy, with the exception of the little south-east corner by the La Bassée road, which was still stubbornly held by the undefeated R. West Kents. On the other side of the La Bassée road, and in the angle which that road makes with the Richebourg road, the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry were still standing firm with the East Surrey beyond them, but these last two regiments were not so hardly pressed, the main attack being always on the eastern side of the main La Bassée road.

We must now take a glance at the Neuve Chapelle position from the larger military point of view. The counter-attacks on the 27th had failed mainly owing to the exhaustion and insufficiency of the troops employed. The place, however, being of considerable strategic importance (to us), the Divisional Head Quarters determined that it could not be left in the hands of the enemy, and an attack on a more important scale was therefore organized for the following day. Sir Horace motored across at night and saw General Conneau, who told him that in addition to the six hundred Chasseurs already in the line, he could lend him a regiment of dismounted cavalry and nine batteries of artillery. The Commander in Chief also sent him the 2nd Cavalry Brigade under Col. Mullens, of which the 4th Dragoon Guards arrived on the evening of the 27th, the 9th Lancers and 18th Hussars during the early part of the night. The whole were placed under the command of General McCracken of the 7th Brigade, to whom the details of the attack on the following day were entrusted.

At 8 a.m. on the 28th, some two hours after the Indians and French cyclists had been forced to retire, proceedings were started with a general bombardment of the village. This was a matter of some little delicacy on account of the position still held by the R. West Kents and King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, and the difficulty was not made lighter by the fog which lay thick on the plain in the early hours of the morning. In the circumstances the accuracy of the French artillery was remarkable. The north side of the village was given a great bombardment, and at eleven o'clock the sun came through, the fog cleared, and the infantry attack began. The artillery had now played its part, but, to assist in the assault, one gun of the 41st Battery was pushed forward to the junction of the Armentières and La Bassée roads. From this point of vantage it was able to work considerable execution on the German infantry massed in the north-east corner of the village, but, as an inevitable consequence, was itself singled out for special attention on the part of the enemy. At the same time, as the attack became more general, its sphere of usefulness became greatly circumscribed, and finally Lieut. Lowell, who was in command, resolved to make an attempt to report the position to his C.O. with a view to getting further instructions. To do this, however, it was necessary to leave his shelter and negotiate a hundred yards of bullet-swept road. He was hit almost at once, but kept on his way till a second bullet brought him down in the road. A gunner of the name of Spicer thereupon ran out to get him under cover, but was himself at once knocked over, and subsequently died. Bomb. Bloomfield then went out to the assistance of his officer and comrade, and was fortunate enough to get them both under cover without himself being wounded.

In the meanwhile, the infantry attack was gallantly pressed home, the 47th Sikhs and the 2nd Cavalry Brigade (on foot) fighting splendidly from street to street. In spite of all, however, the attack once more failed, and at 5 p.m. the Germans were still in possession of the village, always excepting the one small corner still held by the R. West Kents and King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry
The anticlimax of the whole thing, and a cause for reflection as to the objects for which modern armies fight one another, is furnished by the fact that in the evening the Germans quietly vacated the town, apparently realizing—after the sacrifice of some 5,000 men—that the position was either untenable, or was not worth the cost of keeping. Our losses in the last day's fighting alone amounted to 65 officers and 1,466 men. The heroes of the three days' fighting were of course the R. West Kents, who immortalized themselves by a performance which in many ways must be unique. The two surviving officers, 2nd Lieuts. White and Russell, were each awarded the D.S.O., and were, in addition, the subjects of some particularly flattering remarks on the part of Sir Horace. The two Sergt.-Majors above referred to were each given the D.C.M., as also was Sergt. Stroud and Pte. Alison. At 2 a.m. on the 29th, the battalion was finally relieved by the Seaforths, having lost over 300 men in the Neuve Chapelle trenches.

This affair of Neuve Chapelle marks the close of the 2nd Army Corp operations in the La Bassée district. On the 31st the British troops began to be formally relieved by General Willcocks and his Indians. This corps had now been augmented by the arrival of the Ferozapore Brigade, to be followed almost immediately by the Secunderabad Cavalry Brigade and the Jodhpur Lancers. By 10 a.m. on the 31st the transfer of positions was complete, and Sir Horace and his gallant but war-worn Army Corp withdrew to Hazebrouck. A certain proportion of the 2nd Army Corp was afterwards called upon to support General Willcocks, but for the most part we shall, in the future, find them co-operating with the 1st Army Corp and the 7th Division in the neighbourhood of Ypres.

As far, then, as this record of events goes, we may now bid farewell to the fighting area between Armentières and La Bassée, and follow exclusively the events east and south of Ypres. These were destined to develop into a succession of battles, in which small numbers of British troops successfully opposed large numbers of German troops, and the details of which furnish, in the words of Sir J. French, "one of the most glorious chapters in the annals of the British Army."

Footnotes

[6] 4th R. Fusiliers, 1st R. Scots Fusiliers, Northumberland Fusiliers and the Lincolnshire Regiment.