World at War - M. B. Synge




The Western Front—Neuve Chapelle, Loos

"They went with songs to the battle; they were young,

Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow;

They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted;

They fell with their faces to the foe."

—LAURENCE BINYON.

To go back to the beginning of the year 1915, the situation on the Western Front was unaltered, but events which had been taking place elsewhere had a bearing on the programmes of the two sides. The entry of Turkey into the War on the side of Germany was, at the moment, affecting Russia more than any of the other Allies. Hindenburg, owing to his victories in East Prussia, had become the idol of the German people, and a power in the nation. Partly owing to his advice, and partly to a request for help from Austria, it was decided that the German plan of campaign for 1915 should be to hold the positions in the West, and to conduct a great offensive against the Russians in the East. The Germans accordingly strengthened their positions on the Western Front, and awaited with confidence any action which the Allies might take. That their confidence was not misplaced the story will show.

The battle line in France and Flanders from Switzerland to the North Sea was now 500 miles long, and of this great length the French held all except about fifty miles, but from this time onwards the British front was gradually increased. The original British Expeditionary Force had practically disappeared, but around its skeleton was being built up a new army from the ranks of the Territorials: Indian troops had already taken their place in the firing line, and suffered there untold miseries in weather such as they had never experienced before, and for which they were totally unsuited: the Dominions were sending the advance parties of those armies which they raised for the defence of the Mother Country and the Empire, while in England the vast citizen army, called for by Lord Kitchener, was being equipped and was training with an unparalleled keenness and intensity, in order to take its place in the far-flung battle line.

With all these preparations in progress, the Allies were full of hopes at the beginning of the year, and felt that they would be able to make such attacks as the Germans would be unable to withstand.

British plans were guided by the desire to control the Channel ports at all costs, and in order to make them more secure, Sir John French wished to make an attack northwards along the Flanders coast. General Joffre, however, was confident that he could break through the German line by making two attacks at the same time—one from Arras and one from Rheims. These two attacks were to work towards each other, and so cut off the German armies standing in the bulge between these points.

General Joffre's plan prevailed.

The first real test of the Allies' strength was the British attack at Neuve Chapelle. This gallant attack was launched on 10th March, and, under cover of what was then considered an intense bombardment, made some progress. But the strength of the German positions had been underestimated, and by 15th March the battle was over, without any gain having been attained which made up for the loss of life and material. The battle of Neuve Chapelle was described as being bigger than Waterloo, and yet in comparison with battles which were to come it was almost insignificant.

The next action was the second battle of Ypres. It began by a British attack on Hill 60. This was not a very big hill, but in that flat country it was high enough to be a view-point of great importance. The side which was in possession of any ground sufficiently high to give a view, was in a position to make things very uncomfortable for the others, because they were able to harass the movements of people well behind the lines, as well as those in the front-line trenches. Both sides were anxious to do away with this vantage-point, and they began burrowing into the hillside. The British won the race—though their miners could actually hear the German miners working above them—when on Saturday, 17th April, they exploded their mines, and literally blew the defending garrison off the hill. The Germans made many determined efforts to re-capture it, but the British held on with great tenacity against superior numbers, and under an intense bombardment.

Infuriated by the loss of this important point, and encouraged by their success in stopping the attack at Neuve Chapelle, the German Higher Command now decided to make another attack on Ypres and the road to the Channel ports.

For this purpose another scrap of paper was torn up—the Convention signed at the Hague on 29th July 1899; and at about 5 o'clock on Thursday afternoon, 22nd April, the poisonous gas cylinders were opened. The gas spurted out, and formed a greenish-yellow cloud, which drifted slowly before the wind towards the Allied trenches. Owing to its weight it remained thick on the ground, and there was no escape. There was no defence against the gas, and thousands of brave men endured the tortures of lingering, burning, suffocating death.

The Canadians, newly arrived and raw troops, found themselves at this critical point in the line, outnumbered by six to one, and faced by an unforeseen horror, which surpassed all the known horrors of war.

"These were the men out there that night

When Hell loomed close ahead,

Who saw that pitiful hideous rout,

And breathed those gases dread,

While some went under and some went mad,

But never a man there fled."

To the eternal honour of Canada they rose to the occasion, and saved the Imperial Army from a terrible disaster. At first alone, and then aided by British Territorial regiments, they held on against vastly greater numbers, poisonous gas, and an artillery fire of extraordinary violence, for nearly three weeks, when the German onslaught died down, and Ypres, the gateway to the Channel, was saved once more. Probably nothing in the war brings out more fully the words of Froissart, written in the days of Edward III.: "The Englishman suffers very patiently for a very long time. But in the end he pays back terribly!"

In May the British attacked at Festubert, and the French near Lens, but once again, after a successful beginning, progress was stopped to a great extent because of the lack of artillery ammunition. The British army was hopelessly handicapped in 1914, and for the first half of 1915, by lack of shells, a sure proof that Great Britain was not prepared for a war of aggression. During the summer months the industries of Great Britain and France were reorganised, and by September the supply of ammunition of all sorts had been greatly increased.

On 23rd September began the bombardment of the fronts on which the British and French were going to attack—the former at Loos, and the latter in the Champagne country. This bombardment, the most intense yet seen in the war, was continued without a pause for from fifty to seventy hours, and it was confidently expected that, at the end of this time, a clear path would be revealed through the German defences. The Germans, however, had not been wasting their time: they had built up a series of positions one behind the other, which contained wonderfully constructed underground shelters, into which they retired during the bombardment. When this ceased and the Allies attacked, they were content to give up their forward positions, and appearing from their shell-proof dug-outs they met any further advance with a hailstorm of machine-gun and rifle fire, while their artillery brought down a terrific curtain of fire on to the positions which had been given up, and in which the attackers were struggling. Further progress was impossible, and in spite of the most heroic efforts on the parts of the Guards and the Territorials, all idea of a decisive result was abandoned by the end of the month.

Sir Douglas Haig now took over the command of the British Forces in France, a position which he held without a break until the Armistice. Sir John French came home to command the forces in Great Britain. He had shouldered the most tremendous responsibilities for over a year, and conducted two operations—the great retreat from Mons and the first battle of Ypres, which will always maintain a high place amongst the glorious exploits of the British Army.

One lesson from the fighting up to date was the unbelievable powers of endurance of man in a mechanical inferno. Many sound judges had considered that the human mind and frame would never be able to endure such a strain for more than a few months, and had based their calculations as to how long the war would last on this assumption. They were proved wrong.

The surprise of 1915 was the extraordinary strength of the German defensive system. It was realised that some new method of attack would have to be devised if the Western Front was to be broken in 1916, and the road to Berlin opened up.