THE BATTLE OF NEUVE CHAPELLE & THE INDIAN CORPS
With the coming of spring and the drier ground the thoughts of Field Marshall Sir John French Commander in Chief B.E.F. turned to an Offensive in the Artois Region of France. The German Front Lines were apparently not as heavily defended, as some men had been withdrawn to strengthen the Russian Front. If the British could break through the rewards would be great as not far away was the German occupied city of Lille, capital of French Flanders. French was also keen to foster the offensive spirit in his troops after a severe winter in the trenches.
The Battle of Neuve Chapelle was to be the first major offensive of 1915. General Sir Douglas Haig, Commander of the British First Army was to plan the attack and his preparations were thorough. He proposed to attack in depth, and once the village was captured and the line straightened, troops on either side would advance in line towards Aubers Ridge. The Ridge is barely 45 ft higher than the surrounding countryside but its four mile length gave the artillery a significant advantage.
The Indian Corps under Lt. General Sir James Willcocks was to play a significant role in the battle. His Brigade was made up of Indian, British, and Ghurkha troops. The Indian Corps had arrived in Marseilles in late September. They had suffered terribly in the winter of 1914 but had played an active role and proved their worth as soldiers. Many had seen action, often in trench raids where the Germans had already experienced the skills of the Gurkhas in the use of the Kukri. Frostbite, influenza and pneumonia had also taken their toll as well as measles and mumps which they had encountered in Europe.
They no longer wore their glamorous silken uniforms, and there are many photographs of Indian soldiers huddled in trenches in their khaki greatcoats, cocooned in shawls and scarves sent by the ton by an admiring and sympathetic British public.
These men came from all parts of the Indian subcontinent, The Dogras, the Baluchis, Garhwali’s, The Deccan Horse, The Secunderabad Cavalry, Pathans, Sikhs, Punjabis, and Jodphur Lancers. They represented every caste and creed and it required a huge operation to cater for their strict dietary needs. This required six separate kitchens at Base Camp, and the whole of Europe was searched to source sufficient goat meat. (It is worthy of note that descendants of many of these men are living in Birmingham as well as many other parts of the U.K.)
The Corps was led by British Officers and when the experienced Officers were killed their replacements often lacked an understanding of their traditions and the language skills to communicate with these soldiers.
In the order of battle, men of the Eighth Division lined up opposite Neuve Chapelle, with the Meerut and Lahore Brigades of the Indian Corps on their left. The Seventh Division were on the right. To stiffen the Eighth, the Indian Garhwal Brigade were to join in the frontal assault.
The Royal Flying Corps, despite poor weather in February, had photographed the area and The Royal Engineers Survey Board was able to map the ground over which the attack would take place. This with the plans for the artillery barrage would provide something of a template for future battles.
In the build up to the Battle Sir John French ordered that Field Guns be rationed to six rounds a day and Heavy Howitzers to two. This he calculated would give him enough ammunition for three days fighting and three days would put him on Aubers Ridge. A Lt. Col. Drake-Brockman 39TH Garhwal Brigade complained ‘If one telephoned up to the gunnery officer for a little ammunition to be expended on some gun shelling us, the reply generally received was, Sorry I have used up my allowance ‘.
Haig was able to concentrate 340 guns, as many as the B.E.F. had taken to France in August 1914, against the German Salient. This was a ratio of one gun for every six foot of front attacked. The barrage started promptly at 7.30am. Lt C Tennant 1/4th Bat. Seaforth Highlanders [TF], Dehra Dun Brigade said ‘The whole of the sky was rent by noise….the whole air and the solid earth itself became one quivering jelly’. Capt. Agius M.C 3rd (City of London) Bn. Royal Fusiliers (TF) said ‘It was all hell let loose. The village and the trenches in front of it were blown to bits’.
The frontal attack on the village was a success; troops were consolidating their positions by 10.30am. A Ghurkha, Gane Gurung was seen leading eight prisoners from the ruins of a building, and being cheered by men of 2nd Rifle Brigade. He was awarded the Indian Order of Merit. Trumpeter Jimmy Naylor who as a 16 year old had sounded the trumpet call at Mons was now at 17 a hardened veteran, and witnessed not only their taking of prisoners but the Ghurkha skills with their Kukri as they cleared some trenches.
On the flanks things were not going as well. On the left the 2nd Middlesex Regt. were mown down from trenches untouched by shelling and the 2nd Bat. Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) suffered the same fate. On the right, The 1/39th Garhwali’s attacked the wrong objective but battered their way through and captured a length of German Trench, a magnificent action, but one which left a gap in the line.
All this, led to delay and indecision, compounded by poor communications. Miles of cabling had been laid but much had been destroyed, so the artillery was not able to respond quickly enough. These delays were critical as they enabled the Germans to bring up their reserves and consolidate their defences. A German counter-attack on March 12th was beaten back at heavy cost, and soon afterwards Haig cancelled any further attacks and ordered the gains to be consolidated.
Ten V.C’s were won at Neuve Chapelle, and that of Rifleman Gabbar Singh Negi 2nd/39th Garhwal Rifles was won on March 10th. He was one of a bayonet party with bombs who entered the German trenches and was the first man to go around each traverse, assuming command of the raiding party when his NCO was killed. He forced the enemy including a machine gun detachment back until they were forced to surrender. He was killed during this engagement.
Two NCO’s from 2nd Battalion, The Rifle Brigade were awarded the VC on March 12th. When the Battalion was impeded by uncut wire, Corporal C.R. Noble and CSM H. Daniels lying on their backs cut the lower strands of the wire, but when they reached up to cut the higher wire Daniels was shot in the thigh and Noble in the chest. The attack was halted and both men were rescued after dark. Noble died of his wounds the following day.
Of the 750 men of 2nd Bat. Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) who went into battle on March 10th, 143 came out led by the surviving officer, a 2nd Lieutenant and the RSM. The 47th Sikhs lost 80% of their fighting strength. Over 40,000 soldiers took part in the Battle and there were 7,000 British casualties and 4,200 from the Indian Corps.
While all the objectives had not been achieved, British Commanders saw the battle as a success. They had after all penetrated formidable German defences and broken the enemy line. Even the French were mildly impressed that the British were capable of mounting a successful offensive.
The Battle had resulted in the capture of 1.2 miles of ground and indicated what might be achieved with proper planning and coordination, good communications and adequate supplies of ammunition. News of the ammunition shortages was eventually to have serious political repercussions, but for now the War Council had other things on their mind. Their thoughts had already turned to the Dardanelles.
References Macdonald, Lyn (1993). 1915 The Death of Innocence
On an unspecified date in autumn 1918 German Prisoners of War were helping gather the harvest on Wheeley’s Farm near Bromsgrove. Vernon Taylor and English farmer’s son and some of his friends were in the same field shooting rabbits.
Vernon Taylor complained that firing his gun hurt his arm. He gave the gun to a German POW who shot several rabbits. The POW then gave the gun to another POW who shot several more rabbits.
Some local gamekeepers saw this incident and reported it to the police who arrested Vernon Taylor and charged him with breaking the Defence of the Realm Act. Vernon Taylor’s farmer father wrote to the Food Executive Committee to try and get the charges dropped and criticising the interference of those precious gamekeepers.
The Bromsgrove magistrates tried Vernon Taylor on 29 October 1918. The prosecution counsel Mr Hobson presented the facts of the case and read extracts from the defendant’s father’s letter. These confirmed that the accused had indeed let a German POW use a gun.
The accused’s father testified that the POWs had been working on his farm since March 1918 and were good, trustworthy men otherwise the accused would not have lent them his gun. The magistrates found Vernon Taylor guilty. He was fined five pounds and ordered to pay two guineas solicitors’ fees and five shillings for witness expenses. This was about a thousand pounds in our terms.
Loaning a gun to an enemy POW was an incredibly stupid act. However farmers produced the food that was in short supply due to the U Boats manned by the POW’s comrades in arms. Sending the accused to gaol would have been futile.
J. P. Lethbridge